Saturday, October 4, 2008

Feast Day: St. Francis of Assisi

St. Francis, by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo

Today is the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi.

St. Francis is arguably one of the most popular saints, regardless of your precise religious affiliation. He is the saint depicted with the birds and flowers, too often dumbed down to the birdbath saint with the dripping seventies hymn. For a quick decent bit on him, (disregarding the standard flowery image) go here. For more thorough info, go here. For one of the more worthwhile (and readable) reads on him, read this book.

I confess, for a long time I had a hard time thinking closely about St. Francis. Too much of the blessing birds, embroidered prayer samplers sort of thing, I guess. Nice, yeah, but not my thing. Then I read Kazantzakis and I realized that there is much more to this saint than I was giving him credit for. So, my view of this saint changed.

St. Francis was a radical. No wonder he has captured the imagination of so many for so long! He was raised in a family of wealth and after being quite the typical pampered party-hardy rich boy, he had a conversion experience and then found the courage to reject that life, entirely. He called for a radical conversion of heart and therefore of living. He did rejoice in the nature and wildlife, yes, but as a way of praising God's creations rather than a sentimental sweet pause. He was called a fool after all this. But Francis called the comfortably entrenched on their hollow lives and challenged them, sometimes castigated them, to do better.

I think the reason he still captures our imagination, and that the Fransiscan Order is still so strong is that he was really a radical. (And some of our favorite priests and brothers are Franciscans!) And it is only the truly radical that can really capture our imagination and seize our stony hearts.

That's what St. Francis does for us (ok, me), he offers us an example of radical courage. That often comes with hardship but the joy that he showed us can come alongside that very hardship is so, well, exciting that it pulls us all out of our complacent ease and whispers to our truest selves.

That is the continued allure and appeal of St. Francis. It's not the sentimental conversations with the birds - those are great stories and my kids love them too - but it's the challenge. Really, our hearts are always wanting a challenge I think. It's programmed into our nature. St. Francis calls to that. He celebrated and was enthralled with the nature that God made, it overwhelmed him ("brother sun, sister moon"). But it is his ongoing call and challenge to our nature that makes him still such a compelling saint and such an ongoing fascination. It's what makes those cool Franciscan Friars of the Renewal so compelling: the joy and the radical lives.

So let loose your inner radical today and celebrate the feast of St. Francis!
St. Francis of Assisi, pray for us!

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