Recently I’ve challenged myself to learn a little more about the lives of historical Christian figures, especially in regards to their calling to a relational devotion to Jesus. Being situated in a small town, I’ve enjoyed visiting our little library that has a surprisingly large biography section. It was here that I happened to run across an annotated biography on the life of St. Francis. The Franciscan order and its views on spiritual disciplines and poverty have always intrigued me, especially as the latest Pope has chosen the name Francis for his own. So, I decided to (quite literally) check this book out.
The Road to Assisi by Paul Sabatier, takes a middle ground approach to the life of St. Francis, trying to sort through the sensational tales surrounding the life of a man devoted to Christ without negating aspects of the miraculous. In addition, I’ve also picked up G. K. Chesterton’s biography simply called St. Francis. These two sources have served as delightfully colourful guides during my exploration and I’d highly recommend them to anyone interested on a balanced look at the life of St. Francis.
The Calling of St. Francis
Francis started out as an irresponsible rich kid of a wealthy merchant in the town of Assisi. It seems that Francis enjoyed several of the frivolous aspects of a well-to-do existence. His days were filled with goofing about, citing French poetry, and his nights with partying. It seems that he had quite the following among the other young and wealthy inhabitants of the town and love soaking in their admiration.
All this changed, or at least began to change, when Francis became seriously ill and was knocking on death’s door. He recovered his health, to some extent, but never quite regained his taste for the pleasurable pursuits that had previously been the focal point of his existence. Coming close to death seems to have sobered Francis, causing him a bit of internal re-evaluation. However, this re-evaluation didn’t seem to initiate a major change in his life-style. Rather, it slowed him down enough to start considering that there was more to life than his own pleasure, he began to have an inkling that there was a greater purpose to be found, one that extended past himself and into the service of those less fortunate.
Eager to discover what this greater purpose was all about, Francis answered a summons from the Pope for soldiers to rally to his cause and fight in one of the many ongoing struggles between neighbouring city-states. So, Francis decked himself out in the finest clothing, armour, and weapons a rich young aristocrat of the day could afford. He mounted his noble steed, yelled a few inspiring phrases at his assistant, and tromped through the gates of Assisi with the other young knights who were ready to gain glory and honour in the ensuing battle. As they left, the entire town, proud of the battling sons of Assisi, turned out to cheer them on. It was probably a brilliant send-off, worthy of all sorts of colourful phrases and rapturous eloquence. However, as we shall see, Frances’ abysmal failure in this endeavour and quick return resulted only in bitter disappointment and an unshakable disillusionment for our young man from Assisi.
Nobody really knows the reason why, but Francis only made it a few towns over, prematurely returning from his journey the very next day. Upon re-entering Assisi he, once again, was relegated to his bed with a sickness that threatened to make this failed journey his last. It was a massive blow to his ego and self-esteem to set off as a conquering hero and return as an invalid. This low point marked a dramatic change in Francis’ perspective on life, a change that had begun while he was recovering from his previous illness.
After a while, Francis regained some of his health and took to wandering around the countryside with a close friend. During these wanderings, he came across a rocky cave that became somewhat of a personal sanctuary as he returned daily to groan over his past. Here, in this stark setting, he would spend time lamenting how he had wasted his younger years partying and frivolously indulging in whatever pleasure seemed to come his way. During these sessions of lament, Francis pleaded for God to show him mercy and sought for a way to atone for the time he had wasted.
In an attempt to reinvigorate his partying spirit and help Francis rediscover his place in society, his erstwhile friends convinced him to throw a giant shindig. A real smasher that would pull out all the stops and be memorable for years to come. Contrary to their expectations, Francis dampened the party atmosphere somewhat when he responded to the suggestion that he get married in a quite unexpected manner. He stood up in the middle of the reverie, king of the party staff in hand, and declared something along the lines of, “Oh, I’m taking a wife alright, and she is more beautiful, rich, and pure than you could imagine!”
From that moment on, Francis stopped his playboy ways completely, letting go of his old life and the so-called “friends” who kept dragging him down. Something had changed within Francis, instead of wallowing in a self-induced pity and wondering if he was worthy of God’s mercy, he redoubled his contemplative efforts in order to discover what a life dedicated to Christ (the new bride he had declared earlier) entailed. It also seems that during this time God was continuing to soften his heart for the poor. Previously, even while playing the role of a rich playboy, Francis didn’t hesitate to lay down a few coins to help the poor he encountered while palling about with his friends. Maybe he considered it one of the privileges of being rich, an act of charity that made him look good in front of others and increased his reputation. Maybe there truly was a soft spot in his heart for those less fortunate than him. Either way, this charitable aspect of his character reached new heights during a subsequent spiritual pilgrimage to Rome.
This journey was one of self-discovery. Having declared the old Francis to be no more, this new Francis was determined to understand what his purpose in life entailed. Like so many other instances in his life, he went the extreme route after noticing a cadre of beggars outside St. Peter’s basilica. One doesn’t have to stretch the imagination very far to understand the discontinuity Francis felt with the architectural splendour and gold-plated opulence of the grand Roman church building. He had declared the end to this wealthy aspect of his life only to re-encounter it in the place he most expected to find meaning, a meaning that would practically interpret the faint whisper of a divine calling urging him towards a devotion to Christ.
Instead of entering the church, Francis approached one of the beggars, exchanged clothes with the man, and spent the entire day fasting and begging.
This was an important event in Francis’ life as he received a taste of what it would be like to break from his pampered existence and have no means of comfort other than what others would charitably provide. It also served to emotionally connect him to those in need, the poor and destitute, on a deeper and more relational level. Gone were the days that he could frivolously drop coins into the outstretched hand of a beggar and walk away, never to look back. When he returned to Assisi, he came home with a deeper understanding of what poverty truly is, an understanding that caused him to intentionally seek out and give to those in need.
Shortly after this, Francis, still avoiding the opulence and social connection of the church in Assisi, attended mass in a backwoods country chapel. After hearing the gospel in this setting, away from the pomp and finery of the religious life he had always known, he dedicated his life to Christ. And, as we shall see, this indicated a final severing of his attachment to his old life, a life of pleasure and partying, frivolity and fake friends, wealth and waywardness. Francis was now a man that had accepted his divine relational calling and was prepared to be used by God in ways he never thought were possible.
Can you relate to the life of Francis? Has your experience of the church or religion gotten the way of understanding God’s calling in your life? Have there been instances in your life where God is calling you to relationship? How have you responded to this call?
What did God call you away from? (friends, job, social situations, etc.)
What has God called you to? How has this calling impacted you personally? How has it impacted those around you?
Check out 1 Corinthians 1.1-9, where Paul explains how God has faithfully called the church at Corinth into relationship.