St. Francis of Assisi died on October 3, 1226…
So, this week Christians around the world celebrate his life. I wrote this little tribute.
Brother Francis by Shane Claiborne
Despite the fact that there are more books written about St. Francis of Assisi than nearly any human being who ever lived aside from Christ himself, I didn’t really learn much about Francis growing up. Of course, I saw him occasionally memorialized in concrete birdbaths and maybe a hospital or charity that bore his name, but I didn’t know much about this man born Francesco Bernardine to a wealthy merchant family in the Middle Ages.
Granted, I grew up in the evangelical Bible belt, in a stream of Christianity that was not a big fan of saints and icons, and had a deep suspicion of Catholics in general, something that would ironically motivate me to curiously lean into many years later. After the takeover of the cathedral, I began to learn more about Francis and the more I learned the more it awakened my soul. I felt a deep connection to him that is still hard to explain. Francis and Clare lived in a time when Christianity had nearly lost its essence… and its soul. The church had become infatuated with wealth and power – I know it’s hard to imagine, but do your best, hahaha. The church had deserted the cross of Jesus and taken up the sword, fighting crusades with an ever-growing fervor. Accounts of those crusades show how deep the bigotry and hatred went, so devilish that some “Christians” resorted to firing the heads of Muslims from cannons. That’s the age into which Francis was born. A time not that different from ours.
Francis, like many young men, was sent to fight in the crusades. But he felt a collision in his conscience and in his soul, as he prepared to kill the enemies that Jesus had called him to love. He felt a similar crisis of faith as he saw a rich church in a world of poverty.
In the midst of the clutter of riches and a militant church, Francis stripped naked… literally took it all off in the town square, denouncing the culture of materialism that had so poisoned the church. He stripped off his knightly armor and laid down his weapons. And he went to live out the Gospel with the simplicity of the lilies and the sparrows which do not worry about anything, and yet are clothed more beautifully than “Solomon in all his splendor” as Jesus put it.
Francis read the Sermon on the Mount and he set out to live as if Jesus meant the things he said. Eight hundred years later, we are building a movement called Red Letter Christians, drawing our name from the words of Jesus in the Gospel, which are often highlighted in red font. We’re aspiring to live like Jesus meant the stuff he said. We are determined not to give up on Jesus despite the embarrassing things that Christians have done, and keep doing, in His name. Some might say we’re aspiring Franciscans, but the truth is we are aspiring to follow Jesus, the same Jesus that transformed everything for Francis.
It’s interesting that Francis never really wrote very much. His only book was what we now know as The Little Flowers and it’s only about 100 pages, mostly stories. His first rule of life for the brothers was almost entirely from the Sermon on the Mount. He was notoriously suspicious of words separate from concrete action, undoubtedly the reason many attribute him for the line: “Preach the Gospel always, and when necessary, use words.” His life was his sermon.
There’s a lot of deconstruction these days. And there are plenty of things that need to be deconstructed. But for many of us there comes a point where we stop complaining about the church that we’ve experienced and work on building the church we dream of. As my Franciscan friend Fr. Richard Rohr puts it, “The best critique of what is wrong is the practice of something better.” Perhaps it is time, or long past time, to reclaim our faith from the folks who have used it to camouflage their bigotry. We need to live out a version of Christianity that is beautiful, and loving, and worth believing in.
Like Francis, we need to build a new church in the shell of the old one. Good stuff comes from the compost of Christendom.
Over the years, I’ve crossed paths with hundreds of people who have been inspired by Francis, who have rekindled a love for Jesus and a deep compassion for the poor and marginalized by the barefoot prophet of Assisi.
One of those is Rich Mullins, the late singer and songwriter, whose songs I sang – over and over – growing up in the Bible belt. Years later, I heard about how Rich had been radicalized by Jesus, and how Francis helped a little along the way. Rich capped off his income and gave his money away. He lived in a trailer on a Native reservation. Rich even started a little movement (it might be a stretch to call it a religious order) called “The Kid Brothers of St. Frank” (he took a little religious liberty there). Rich had also written a musical about Francis, where Francis was a cowboy in the wild west (he took a lot of religious liberty there). And I ended up landing a role in that musical, playing a one-armed cowboy named “Lefty”. Rich was one of the people who continued to open my eyes up to Francis… and the ways that the life of Francis is like an arrow pointing to Heaven.
I’ll admit, in our 20s we were a little extreme. As we started our community, many of us made our own clothes (I still do, but just not out of burlap). We went barefoot pretty much everywhere (I even got kicked out of a church for not wearing shoes and considered it pure joy in the most Franciscan way). I watched the iconic Francis film “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” like it was a cult classic (and I suppose it sort of was). I remember walking the streets of Philly singing Franciscan songs, like we were friars who went heavy on Spirit(s). I even had a friend who shaved a tonsure in his head (the distinctive bald spot with a hair halo thing, which does have a bit of a punk rock vibe to it). We were 20 years old. We wanted a revolution, and Francis opened up our theological and social imaginations. And he still does.
Fast forward a couple of decades and we’re still aspiring Franciscans, ragamuffins doing our best to live the radical words we see in the Gospel. Heck, I’m going to just throw it all out there, at the risk of freaking out some of my evangelical friends – we even have a legit Vatican-certified relic of St. Francis in the front of our house (thanks to my pal David Leo Schultz!). That means we have a piece of Francis (probably hair, or bone, or skin… I know it’s kind of holy and weird all at the same time). Francis lives with us, in our hearts and in our home.
Even now, it’s hard to find someone whose life and witness is as timeless and relevant as St. Francis of Assisi. His life is a profound rebuke of everything that is wrong in our world. He offers a pointed critique of capitalism. He’s one of the earliest Christian environmentalists, a sassy reformer of the church, and one of the most passionate conscientious objectors to war. He is a prophet for our time.
The radical nature of the Gospel hasn’t changed much in 800 years or 2000 years, even though the world we live in sure has. At the heart of the Gospel is still a call to abandon the materialism of our world and reject the violence of our government and our culture. It is a call to live near to the poor and close to the lilies and sparrows. It is a call to live in community. It is a call to be peacemakers in a world that continues to “live by the sword and die by the sword.”
Francis heard a gentle whisper say to him, “Repair the church which is in ruins.” And he took it literally. He found an old abandoned church building named San Damiano, and he begin rebuilding it, brick by brick. But the Spirit had something larger in mind than just the restoration of a building. The whole Church was in need of renovation, renewal, repair.
My friend, the late Phyllis Tickle, scholar and author, used to say, “Every few hundred years, the church needs a rummage sale.” We need to get rid of the clutter, and trash, dust off the treasure, cling to the things that really matter. That’s what happened through Francis and Clare in Assisi. But it was more than a rummage sale. It turned into a revolution. It was a youth movement. Francis was in his early twenties when he was radicalized, and many of those who joined him were even younger. At first they were mocked, persecuted, denounced as heretics like most prophets. But then the movement spread into a spiritual revolution, one of the most powerful renewals the church has ever seen. Even the Pope mocked them at first… but had a vision of the church collapsing… with Francis and the youth of Assisi holding up the corner from collapse. Isn’t it ironic that many saints begin as dissenters? Francis must be smiling down on us now as Pope Francis became the first Pope to take his name.
Although the church is prone to forget his witness or to make a monument of his movement, we can still celebrate his critique of an economy that left masses of people in poverty, so that a handful of people can live as they wish. We still rejoice in his love for the earth as we work to end the ravaging of our world. We remember his witness that there is a better way to bring peace than with a sword.
Frederick Buechner said that saints leave off the scent of God, like a handkerchief dropped from heaven to earth. They leave off the aroma of Christ, the fragrance of heaven.
God has not called us to be St. Francis. God has called us to be like Jesus – and to be who called has called us to be. The truth is that we are often not living out the best, or the truest, version of ourselves. We are not living as radically as we should. We are not as sacrificial or as generous or as loving as we want to be. And folks like St. Francis can help guide us, provoke us, and dare us — not become who they are but to become who we are meant to be.
God is at work in the world. God is at work in each of us.
Every generation has its own revolution.
May Francis inspire us to live out the revolutionary love of Jesus, here and now.