St. Francis of Assisi, Faith, and Grace

The following is my homily for the 27th Week in Ordinary time delivered at St. Francis of Assisi Church Wakefield, Rhode Island USA, October 6, 2013. The memorial of St. Francis of Assisi was celebrated on October 4th. 

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This weekend, as the Church remembers the life of St. Francis of Assisi, let’s pause for a moment and examine the virtues that energized Francis’ life.

We can begin by saying that he was a simple man. He pursued simplicity. This does not mean that he was of limited intelligence, or that he pursued simplicity for simplicity sake, rather, it means that he was successful at eliminating everything from his life that did not enhance his love of Jesus and service to his fellow man.

In other words, he was continually aware of the four eternal goals of life: keeping our soul in the state of grace, awareness of judgment by God, eternal life, and companionship with God Himself.

He realized that “to be simple is to see things with the eyes of God. St. Francis pursued simplicity because he innately knew that God Himself is simple.”

Other characteristics of Francis’ life are the virtues of faith and love. St. Francis understood that by praying for faith, by acting faithfully and lovingly, his spiritual life would be stressed – like an athlete preparing for a match – enabling him grow stronger in faith and love of God. He knew that if he committed himself to it God’s grace would assist him in this spiritual exercise.

In St. Francis’ life story we see his extraordinary reaction to his father’s demand for repayment for the fabrics he took, and sold, to benefit the poor.

How did he react when accused by his father?

In innocence and detachment he publicly disrobed –  a humble nude standing majestically in the Assisi town square.

Michelangelo should have attempted to sculpt that scene in marble. For what was the scene?

It was the image of the young Francis, not confronting the Goliath of military invasion, rather, the Goliath of a garden serpent (in the form of acceptance by society and his father’s love) who tempted him to return to the sweet life, “la dolce vita”.

But it was also the image of the grace of a Divine call to live a virtuous and detached life, filled with love for God and His creation.

The simple grace of Francis’ vision would be the stone that would bring down the giant of his own ego and worldliness.

Now let’s apply this to our Gospel (Luke 17: 5-10).

In today’s parable Jesus demonstrates the power of faith for overcoming temptation and obstacles.

But what did Jesus mean when He said that our faith could move trees and mountains? (see  also Matt.17: 20; Mark 11:23)

In the Middle East  – even to this day – the term “mountain mover” is used for someone who could provide the solutions to great difficulties.

So when Jesus tells us that if our faith was just the size of a mustard seed we could “uproot trees and mountains,” His emphasis is on His grace working in conjunction with our faith.

The gift of His grace is sufficient to assist us in dealing with our problems. Jesus doesn’t say that all our problems will instantly go away, rather, He says that we will be able to endure them, and yes, like Christ Himself, even overcome them.

So, we know St. Francis of Assisi today because he responded, in a heroic way, to the specific grace that he was given as a disciple of Christ.

Faith and grace was infused into his soul, and ours, at the moment of Baptism. If we choose to participate in Christ’s Sacraments, and do so on a regular basis, grace will build upon grace, and like Francis, our perception will become clearer, we will understand our personal Christian duty, and know how to respond to it.

With today’s Gospel, and St Francis in mind, we can say that God wants us to respond to His grace and scale the mountains of our own difficulties – to climb upon the crosses of our everyday life – because it is through this effort that we receive, in His love, the ability to be His partners in eternity.

At the end of his life, if St. Francis had been asked the question of what did he accomplish, he would have probably answered that he accomplished – nothing.

Rather, he may have said that it was as a loving disciple of Christ that he responded to the gift of God’s grace – and that it was God’s grace working through him that enabled him to perform good deeds and loving actions.

Let us pray that, in the spirit of St. Francis, we respond to God’s grace with the same faith, love, and generosity of spirit.

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Copyright © 2011- 2013 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. Notes on the art: The first image of St. Francis is a 13th century contemporary image of him. It is found in the Benedictine Monastery in Subiaco, Italy. Thanks to Digitalnun at www.ibenedictines.org. The second and third paintings are by Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516). Bellini painted this around 1480. The third painting is a close-up of a section of this painting by Bellini which shows a curious and loving rabbit peeking out of his den just as St. Francis receives the stigmata. The last photo is of a cloak that was worn by St. Francis. You may observe it and other personal items of St. Francis, such as his prayer book, slipper, and a cincture in the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy. Quotations on simplicity based on a 1936 sermon by Fr. Ronald Knox. The reference to “mountain mover” and its usage in the Middle East was provided by D. Schwager. My thanks to him.

St. Francis of Assisi, Simplicity, and Sacred Artists

Today is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. He is one of the patrons of the Fra Angelico Institute for the Sacred Arts. St. Francis reminds us how we admire, and should emulate, the virtues of the saints. When we meditate on the life of St. Francis  – three characteristics of spirit – three virtues –  emerge.

First, he was a simple man. He pursued simplicity. This does not mean that he was of limited intelligence, or that he pursued simplicity for simplicity sake, rather, it means that he tried, and was successful, at eliminating everything from his life that did not lead to, and enhance, his understanding and love of Jesus. In other words, we can see that he kept to what was essential in life: “God, the state of our soul, judgment and eternal life.”

He realized that “to be simple is to see things with the eyes of God.  St. Francis pursued simplicity because he innately knew that God Himself is simple” (Fr. Ronald Knox 1936).

Other characteristics of Francis’ life are the virtues of faith and love. St. Francis understood that by increasing his faith, by praying for faith, by acting faithfully and lovingly, his spiritual muscles would be stressed, and as a result, he would grow stronger in faith and life.

Giotto (1226-1337), born the same year St. Francis died, painted these virtues of St. Francis at work when he portrays Pope Innocent III’s dream of Francis holding up the pillars of the Church. It was St. Francis, and his fellow friars, that would promote, and live in their daily lives, the virtues of poverty, chastity, and obedience that would sweep the imagination of Europe and even gain the respect of the Eastern world.

One of my favorite stories about him that also illustrates this point occurred in the year 1219 – during the Fifth Crusade; Francis traveled to the Holy Land – where he was captured and beaten by the Muslims. St. Bonaventure tells us in his history of the Franciscan Order that St. Francis was brought before the sultan Al Kamil, and preached to him about love and the meaning of Jesus’ life. When he finished his sermon he then challenged the Sultan’s imams to a religious test to determine which was the true religion – Islam or Catholicism. The painting below, entitled Trial by Fire by Giotto,  illustrates the drama of this moment.

“Francis said to the Sultan: “Please have a bonfire lit, and have your imam, along with me, enter the fire – so let it be that his God is the true God whoever emerges from the flames unhurt.”

The Sultan’s eyes lit up – now this is a man of faith. His imams, however, felt that they had better things to do.  But from that moment on Al Kamil was so impressed with Francis that he gave the Franciscans safe passage to travel and stay unhindered – anywhere – in Muslim occupied territories; and as a direct result of this act, eight hundred years later, if you go to Jerusalem you will see that the Franciscans are still the Catholic Religious Order responsible for the maintenance of the shrines in the Holy Land.

Theologian Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio teaches us that “St. Thomas Aquinas explains that a virtue, like a physical muscle, is a habit – a power or capacity – that gets stronger when its exercised – and atrophies – when it is not;” and St. Francis, tells us that faith and loveprayer and service are the main muscles in our spiritual body.

Francis refused to let his spiritual muscles become weak. He exercised them regularly, we could say heroically, so that he would be able to endure all the tests, all the trials, that life presented to him. We need to ask ourselves, however, how did he do it? How did he exercise his spiritual muscles?

The answer is that he balanced himself. He was in harmony with the Lord, and, with himself as a person. He achieved this balance by harmonizing his active life (the life of an ordained deacon serving within the world) with the life of the Spirit (prayer, the Liturgy of the Hours, contemplation, Penance, and the Eucharist). Like the holy Gospel account of Martha and Mary, he imitated the Lord’s understanding by seeing that both were correct, service and prayer, both had their place and both were absolutely essential – especially prayer.

What a wonderful witness he is to us. His life and work always has something to teach, and challenge us,  to greater acts of simplicity, service, prayer and love in our own lives.

As sacred artists we should be humble enough to study and learn from sacred artists who have come before us, but most importantly, we need to study sacred artists that are balanced in their spiritual and artistic lives. One artist that we need to study is Giotto because he is a wonderful example of a sacred artist that combined the principles of action and contemplation. He was balanced. He achieved simplicity in his portrayal of spiritual truths, and as a result, was able to witness to us the need for continual dedication to strive, within our own spiritual and artistic traditions, to serve the Lord and our fellow man by expressing beauty through our sacred art.     St. Francis of Assisi pray for us.

Copyright © 2011 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved