I have written about the virtues of St. Francis before, on October 4, 2012: https://fraangelicoinstitute.com/2012/10/04/the-virtues-of-st-francis-of-assisi-a-model-for-sacred-artists
That post, written nine years ago, has been, and continues to be, my most popular essay on this blog. It has been read by over twenty-two thousand people all over the world. I mention this not to sound a tinny trumpet and jangly bells but to request, if possible, the reader become familiar with it since it sets the stage for this post.
What is the man-in-the-street’s perception of St. Francis? Is it one that is only shaped by the art that portrays him as a soft and sickly sweet, as just the saint of ecology and cuddly animals; a man to be taken seriously only because of his love for nature? A “nice” non-threatening man willing to compromise and make everyone feel good?
Francis was “nice” in the same way that we can say Jesus Christ was “nice.” Was he non-threatening? He was as non-threatening as Jesus casting out the moneylenders and as a Savior extending a hand to the woman caught in adultery. He was a man of justice and mercy.
St. Francis was not a rebel or revolutionary. He did not rail against the sinful imperfections and established order of the 13th century Church, yet, he certainly did threaten the established religious and social conventions of his day. He asked his fellow Italians: “Does your life reflect the life of Christ. If not why not?” He was not a social reformer but he was a reformer of the soul and spirit. He waged war, not against his neighbor, but against the sinful imperfections he perceived within his own mind, body and soul.
He did love nature, but only in reference to the truth, goodness, and beauty of God and His creation. He loved his neighbor in order to bring them to an understanding of Jesus through the Holy Scriptures and the Sacred Traditions of the Catholic faith. We misunderstand the witness of St. Francis of Assisi if we divorce Sacred Scripture and the Traditions of the Catholic faith as the core of his life and soul.
His love was not simply for the value and beauty of nature itself. He did not divinize nature. To do so is an attribute of paganism; it is heresy. He believed that the natural world, and all that is contained within it is an indication of the Holy Trinity’s truth, goodness and beauty.
St Francis knew that the natural world is a reflection of the Lord’s creative diversity. It is a mirroring of His intimate actions and expression of His love. He believed, in a dramatic way, that God’s creation should in turn, through its actions, reflect their love back to their Creator, Jesus Christ. Do not trees, and flowers, birds and wolves, and the entire cornucopia of plants an animals do this by their very existence? They follow God’s intimate plan for them by existing, living, and in their own unique way, proclaiming the glory of God.
How did he know this? As a sacred warrior he knew it because he was a man of the Holy Scriptures. The Gospels and Epistles were his sword and armor; they were his rations, the “kit,” he needed to do battle on behalf of God.
St. Francis, of course, did love his fellow man, but he was at war with his own sinfulness. He was a saint that exuded joy, yet, in the privacy of his own cell he shed tears over what he perceived as his own sins and failings. He commanded his brothers not to be sad and dejected in front of their brothers in Christ, rather, to go to their own cells and there beg God for forgiveness and humility.
So why add the words “sacred warrior” to the many labels of a man and saint that cannot be labelled? When all is said and done, St. Francis of Assisi, as a warrior, vanquished himself. He overwhelmed his worldly desire for the honors of military service. He overcame the enemy of his passions and distractions. He was victorious over the common day desires for wealth, position, power, and yes, even the great gift of the love of a wife and children. In its place he strapped on the humble soldier’s garments of poverty, chastity, and obedience to God and his superiors.
In imitation of Christ this sacred warrior simply expressed the revelations of Sacred Scripture and his love for God and His creation. For the sake of Christ, he also gave witness with the blood of his service to Christ as a model for others.
The painting below shows the wounds in Francis’ hands and side. For his extraordinary witness to the love of God Jesus blessed him with the stigmata: an award, an honor, a medal far above anything that the world could provide.This sacred image was painted by Cimabue; original name Bencivieni di Pepo, the modern Italian is Benvenuto di Giuseppe, (born circa 1251—died 1302). He was the last great Italian artist who painted in the Byzantine style. That style dominated early medieval Italian painting.
A profitable source for study are the authentic quotations compiled by Fr. James Meyer O.F.M. in his The Words of St. Francis – An Anthology (Franciscan Herald Press: Chicago, 1952). Meyer’s Anthology is backed up with sixteen different scholarly sources. It provides excellent insight through his words on poverty, chastity, obedience and the rule that his brothers and sisters in Christ are to follow.
Praise, glory, and thanks to Our Lord Jesus Christ for providing us with the witness of St. Francis of Assisi.
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