Today we celebrate St. Francis of Assisi.
Many know him as the “bird bath guy,” that garden statue of a peaceful looking monk in a traditional robe and tonsure, with birds perched on him. Many also know him by our popular modern tradition of celebrating his feast day as we will today by blessing pets.
I’ve seen snakes, exotic talking birds, iguana, and horses at these blessings, and it’s a joyous reminder of our gratitude for the profound love animals give to us, and how they give us a glimmer of the magnitude of God’s love. It’s a fitting celebration for a man who was known as joyous and peaceful, who conveyed in words and actions an inspiring love of nature and creation.
And I want to reflect today about how his life illuminates ours in deep and meaningful ways, and shows us ways to live a human life that can transform our experiences of the most difficult parts of our life – like the grief of loss and change, or our sense of self-doubt, or the anxieties that can arise when we wake at four in the morning, or in dealing with current events – such as the horrifying and tragic violence in Thailand this weekend.
What do we do with our feelings when a deeply disturbed man bursts into a daycare and shoots and stabs tiny sleeping children? Thirty-six lives lost, including 24 little ones. How do we deal with our despair and rage and sense of helplessness?
God have mercy.
Sometimes it seems like too much to bear, and I’m here suggesting that in fact it is, too much to bear.
Too much to bear if we don’t feel the concrete reality of God’s love and mercy and presence with us as real, as palpable energy.
The life of St. Francis offers us ways to learn to feel that palpable presence, to open to it, to feel it strengthening us for whatever life holds.
His transformation really began as a soldier. It was not the heroic adventure of chivalry he likely dreamed it would be as a youth living in 12th century Italy. He was changed by the violence he saw, human beings killing each other. It’s possible he killed people himself with the up close and personal weapons used 800 years ago. And he was held captive for a year, including experiencing sickness and fever that brought visions, visions that led him to decide to not continue the life of a soldier. And when he came home from all that, back to his hometown of Assisi and the wealthy life he’d lived earlier – the fancy clothes and opulent parties didn’t hold the same attraction.
One day he was praying at a rundown chapel on the outskirts of Assisi when he heard a message, felt an urging inside: Francis, rebuild my church. He took it literally, and to get money to repair the chapel, he took expensive draperies from his father’s house and sold them along with his horse. But when the priest at the chapel refused the money he had gotten in this way, there was an altercation, shouting, and Francis reportedly threw the gold coins in the priest’s face. His father was enraged to hear this, and Francis hid in a cave for a month. When he returned, the townspeople jeered at him and pelted him with mud and stones.
His father tied him up, beat him, locked him in a dark shed and eventually took him to officials and took away his inheritance. Francis’s response was to take off all his clothes and say Fine! I renounce everything. The people in Assisi did not understand his actions and choices, and they judged him and his state of mind.
But Francis didn’t care. He had begun to respond to the power of the urging he felt. And for the rest of his life, he loved and imitated Christ as powerfully as he could by travelling in poverty, preaching the good news of love, exuding joy, and caring for others, including those typically rejected, such as lepers and the very poor. He became a man of peace, caring for nature and animals with great devotion, considering all of creation to be an expression of God. He brought exuberant love to everything.
It was a simple life of poverty. He didn’t intend fame, or to start a new order of monks. Unlike the earlier responses to his unconventional behavior, people became drawn to the grace and authentic joy that animated him. Within a few years, 5 or 6,000 people were following him around, and since then and still today, there are thousands of Franciscan monks and nuns living lives of charity, simplicity, and prayer all over the world.
The power of living a life as Francis did is evident in the fact that his life still matters to ours, is still relevant 800 years later in a world so totally different from his world, unimaginable to his world.
And at a deep level, what is it that is relevant?
We’re not called to be Francis, we are called to be who we are, in this time, and this place. And to recognize for ourselves the presence of God’s love with us, and to swim in the center of that. To do whatever we need to do in our way to be as close to God as possible in our interior life, our awareness, our hearts, and in the way we live. To let that presence guide us, as it guided Francis.
And not to do this to be a “good person” or because we should do it, but because it is the most important thing we need.
When we pray “God have mercy” to the most difficult challenges of life, we are invited to know in an active, felt sense, the mercy and love that is implicit to the Divine Source of all being, that is here and that can transform our experience, can free us to live in the place of peace and strength, no matter what is happening.
It takes resolve to be in close experiential contact with this Divine love and presence. We need to pay attention. It brings us to a resonance inside, something that feels remembered, not believed in. We can cultivate the awareness in our prayers and in meditation, and begin to feel it, a subtle tuning fork of perception. And through that, we can learn to bring our attentiveness to sense that divine love and presence in our daily activities, when we make a meal, do a mundane boring task, walk up the steps, lay down to fall asleep.
Author and spiritual teacher James Finley said, “We’re suffering from depth deprivation. We’re skimming over the depths of our own lives. All the more regretful because God’s oneness with us is hidden in the depths over which we’re skimming”
And our sense of this presence is the very thing we need the most to release from the grip of feeling helpless and terrified and broken by grief.
God is in each present moment, in nature, in others, in the mundane things, and in the mystery that causes our heart to beat every moment of our lives. But we miss noticing it and receiving it, because we’re distracted by our thoughts, our projects and busyness, by trying hard to get somewhere, be somebody, by our pursuit of achievement, wealth, approval. There’s much of importance in those things, but we need, like Francis, to always remember and engage with – the most important thing.
For me, a definition of insanity is anything we are attached to and keep doing or focusing on that keeps us feeling apart from the gifts of life we have, the capacity to be conscious of the flow of Love and Mercy inside and around us.
Richard Rohr, a spiritual teacher – who also happens to be a Franciscan monk – said: “the central practice of Franciscan mysticism is that we stay close to love”
This means we stay close to love and God’s presence in awareness and in actions. Francis modeled that this truth and love is found everywhere in life – in nature, in animals, in the weakest among us, in whatever concrete forms life is presenting to us at any given moment.
The love of God is not a thing or an idea, but an informing energy, a nourishment. It penetrates us, opens us and strengthens us, brings us clarity and a solidness of being that widens our capacity to be with the challenges of human life in ways we can’t imagine or do on our own. By opening to this love, this energy with all our strength and all our mind and all our heart we are changed in all the ways that matter most, that we need most.
In our gospel today, Jesus says, “Learn from me, here you will find rest for your souls.”
The Franciscan Richard Rohr spoke of Francis as a “soft prophet.”
The distinction he made was that “hard prophecy” is the practice of “speaking direct and challenging words of truth.” But, he said “it’s very difficult to do this from a truly clean heart and humble spirit.”
“Hard prophecy often has more to do with our own self-image as strong, smart, zealous, or committed than with actual service or caring for others. The present culture of angry partisan politics that exists on both sides is far more effective at making us feel morally superior than it is at changing anyone’s mind.” And I would say of changing anyone’s heart.
On the other hand, Rohr defines a soft prophet as one who makes a change in lifestyle.
I would suggest that change to be in both our outer and inner lifestyle. That’s what Francis modeled.
We need to be patient with ourselves in cultivating this underlying sensitivity. It’s a process and not always an easy one. But nothing is worth more than bringing ourselves to flow in the deep down depths of Love and letting it lead and strengthen us.
In this, we receive all we need not only to face life and its most difficult challenges, but also to live a life that through divine power and love, affects others and affects the world, as the life of Francis continues to do. And we will know then not only the wideness of God’s mercy, but the wideness of our true being, the depths of the joy and strength that we need and are fashioned to know, that we are capable of in God.