Nature, with animals and God as Creator of all things come immediately to mind when thinking of St. Francis of Assisi. He imitated Jesus so closely and became known as “alter Christi” (another Christ). This was shown in the saint’s length of lifespan–44 years, just ten more than His Lord and God. And indeed Jesus would become his Lord rather than the chivalry and courtship of the 13th century Medieval Times when vassal and lord were fighting for their fair ladies. His Lady would be Poverty, when he realized that he wanted to “radically” pick up the leper not only of mankind’s illness but also of sin that he saw in his life.
Francis came from a wealthy family. And the times of the splintered city-states were those of much fighting. He originally went off to fight in a romantic fashion, only to realize that Jesus was the one he should be struggling to gain as first in his life. Sickness, and the time spentfor recuperation brought him to the realization that he was the knight in search of a dream–and that was real with the true King Christ and His Kingdom, not all of the fiefs and kingdoms of the world. Once he knew the purpose of life, he found his vocation. He no longer felt the bitter in the leper, but the sweet in all of life’s obstacles. He was somewhat confused at first, when he literally began repairing churches with brick and mortar but eventually realized that it was the spiritual aspect of man’s heart that needed to be amended. Literally, he left his family by throwing off his clothes in total nakedness, to live the Gospel as radically as Christ.
Many things can be said about St. Francis of Assisi during this month of his feast day, but the most uplifting and inspiring three central ideas of his spirituality are—the Cross, the Crib, and Communion (Holy Eucharist). These “three Cs” characterize his converted lifestyle and his Franciscan message to the world. Like the Blessed Mother, he found in Christ what she lived.
Once St. Francis prayed and gazed intensely upon the San Damiano Cross in an abandoned Benedictine church in the Italian valley, he could no longer contain himself in his usual party surroundings with his friends, because Jesus, as he later relates had spoken to him. He, like most religious and monks of the Catholic Church of the past, did not set out to start a religious order.
His holiness and inner radiance of God brought to him first a small group of followers who were his worldly friends, and then thousands gathered around him to live his Gospel life. His followers, the Franciscans were like his present day Dominican friends, a novel group of monks—friars who traveled. Everywhere they went they wore their leper garments, barefoot, and armed only with their example of the cross of Jesus Christ. St. Francis told them only to preach with words when necessary. In the corruption of his times, his example was enough to reform the church. In his Fifth Admonition, the Assisi saint stated that man could boast not of knowledge or anything else, except “our humiliations (2 Cor 12: 15) and in taking up daily the holy cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Until his death, his life was lived by the Cross of Christ and sealed in the Stigmata, the five wounds in his body at the end, a tribute to his way of living.
The man of poverty, chastity, and obedience who revolutionized the religious orders of the 13th century with his missionary preaching, spread the Gospel message to not only his own brothers but to religious sisters (Poor Clares) and the laity (Secular Franciscans or Third Order) with the Franciscan charism. The heart of his love of God besides the Eucharist and the Cross, was the Baby Jesus, born in humility in a manger. He is often thought to have been seen by the villagers in Greccio with the infant Jesus in his arms. He is the first who made possible the crèche setting of Christmas, not only in his mind and heart during Christmas day, but every day of the year.
For Francis, nothing could be more sublime than the humble divine Word of God, coming as Savior in human form as a tiny baby.
What is so beautiful about the spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi, is that the acme of his “three Cs” is the divinity of God also becomes man on the Cross from the Christmas Child to the table of the Eucharist. The Word of God in humility is seen in humanity. In his First Admonition, St. Francis says that Jesus is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father but through me…he who sees me sees also the Father.” (Jn 13: 6-9) For Francis, the bread and the wine on the altar, consecrated by the hands of the priest to become the Body and Blood of Christ was not a matter of debate, just because it still looked like bread and wine.
Francis tells us in his First Admonition that God is light and dwells in spirit, and that God can only be seen in spirit. God gives us Himself in the flesh, in the form of bread and wine which is pleasing to our human senses. Francis knows that Jesus says that the flesh profits nothing but the spirit gives life. Jesus is present in the flesh and spirit, but only the spirit sees his transformation or “transubstantiation” in the Eucharist. Francis continues that those who saw Christ in his humanity but not his divinity were condemned–“In the same way now, all those are damned who see the sacrament of the Body of Christ, which is consecrated on the altar in the form of bread and wine by the words of our Lord in the hands of the priest, and do not see or believe in spirit and in God that this is really the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The Spirit of God in the faithful knows that they really are receiving the Body and Blood of Christ. Francis concludes that those with Christ during his time saw only his flesh but many believed that he was divine, that he was God, because they “contemplated him with the eyes of the spirit.”
Francis says that this is what we must do too. And every time when he passed a Catholic Church, he would on bended knee pray—“We adore you O Christ here in this church and all the churches and tabernacles throughout the world and we praise you because by your holy Cross you have redeemed the world.” Francis was aware that within each Catholic Church was the presence in the tabernacle of the Risen Christ, the Holy Eucharist (sad to say he did not foresee that the Real Presence was not in all churches after Luther and the 16th century).
So, St. Francis, the knight in search of his prize, had met the Lord of the Kingdom of Heaven in his humanity on the cross, the crib, and communion (Holy Eucharist). He radiates in so many Catholic churches in the stained glassed windows the light of Christ so closely that it is easy to see the Master or Creator shinning in the “poor man of Assisi”.
No belief in God for St. Francis would be complete without his praising of God as “holy, Lord, the only God” who is “Most High” and “king of heaven and earth”—“Three and One”. And Francis had a deep devotion to the Blessed Mother of God, the New Ark of the Covenant. In his “The Praises of the Blessed Virgin Mary”, he knew without a doubt that Mary was intercessor of the Church, when he called her “Virgin made Church”. He referred to her as “Hail His Tabernacle”. He was deeply aware of Mary as “Mother of God”, who carried in her womb the One he deeply loved first in his life, Jesus. His Catholic vision testifies to Mary’s role in our lives when he concludes in his “Praises”—“and hail all you holy virtues, which through the grace and illumination of the Holy Spirit are infused into the hearts of the faithful, so that from those unfaithful you make them faithful to God.”
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