Today is the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, one of the most popular saints in the world. Churches and church schools hold Pet Blessing services in his honor, letting people bring their dogs and cats, hamsters, rabbits, bearded dragons, and yes, birds to church, where they can sing along with “All things bright and beautiful” or “All creatures of our God and King”. People happily post pictures of Francis preaching to the birds, featuring attentive songbirds (they were actually crows), or share the Prayer of St. Francis, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace”, which was actually composed by a French priest named Fr Esther Bouquerel in 1912 and became associated with Francis when it was printed on a holy card of his image in 1927.
The great Giotto, one of my favorite artists, painted a justly famous fresco of Francis preaching to the birds, but he also painted an earlier, no less decisive incident in the saint’s life.
Francis’ father, a successful and wealthy cloth merchant, called out his slacker son for selling off silk from the family business to pay for repairs to the little church of San Damiano, which Francis was doing because he’d heard the voice of Jesus telling him, “Repair my church, Francis, which as you can see is falling apart”. When his father took charge of him, threatening to disown and disinherit him, and the bishop told him he must return his father’s money and trust in God (instead of actually doing what God had bidden him), Francis took the purse of his belt and gave it to his father, then said, “My clothes were bought by you, also, and so they belong to you,” took them off, and dropped them at his father’s feet, to stand naked before God and man.
From them on, so the legend says, Francis lived on alms and said that he was wedded to Lady Poverty. That’s fine once you’ve been canonized, but if you look past Giotto’s wonderful paintings, what you see is a teenaged slacker more interested in music, dance, and the latest hot singers from Provence than in the family business, who then becomes a crazy homeless guy who begs for money, talks about Jesus all the time, and seems to be trying to rebuild a falling-down old church. The gentle St. Francis who preached to birds and wrote hymns about all created beings praising the Creator is easier to like than the crazy homeless guy who was an anticapitalist, or the suffering mystic whose love was rewarded by being wounded with the same wounds as his god.
But they are all the same person–the slacker teenager partying instead of helping his dad; the crazy homeless guy; the semi-reluctant leader of a little band of brothers who somehow got their Rule of life approved by the Pope; the well-meaning idiot who thought if he just went and talked to the Muslims, they would accept Jesus and all this horrible Crusading would end; the isolated, suffering mystic wrapping his hands like a boxer to hide his open wounds. It has taken me far too long, but I think I’ve finally grasped how and why Francis’ emphasis on poverty and what we would call his environmentalism are the same thing. Standing naked in front of his father, having told him in no uncertain terms that he was dropping out and tuning in, Francis realized that in truth, everyone is poor. No human being can really own anything, earn anything, deserve anything. Everything we live on, everything we need, everything that pleases us is a sheer gift from God, and our job is not to make money and pursue security but to return thanks and praise for God’s gifts, as the sun and the moon, birds, wolves, trees, and everything else does, but consciously and humanly.
His fellow Italians call him Il Poverello, the little poor man. And Francis was poor, and he suffered, but he was also happy. And like all people who are truly devoted to a god, he was and is dangerous, and for that, I venerate him.