He was born Giovanni Francesco Bernardone. His father was a successful cloth merchant. His childhood and adolescence were by all accounts carefree, marked by the ease and education of relative wealth. He was a sometimes-benefactor of his friends’ rowdy adolescent forays. As a young man, he was captured in battle and spent a year in a damp prison cell. Upon his return, he sobered up, and began spending long times in prayer. In one such time he had a vision in which he heard Christ asking him to “go repair my house, which, as you can see, is falling completely to ruin.” Although at the time, he began by repairing the dilapidated church in which he had been praying, his followers would later come to understand this as his call to reform the worldly and corrupt practices of the church.
His merchant father was furious at his change of behavior and had him brought before a local bishop, complaining that his son had thrown off all his responsibilities. In response, our young friend stripped off his clothes—which represented his wealth and position—and put them at his father’s feet. He said, “Up to today I called you ‘father,’ but now I can say in all honesty, ‘Our Father who art in heaven.’” With these words, he abandoned his place in his father’s house and went out to live as a hermit. His work would leave a mark on Christians for generations to come. History would come to know him as St. Francis of Assisi.
Francis lived a life of extreme voluntary poverty, surviving through food received in payment for work and through begging. He worked among the poor and lepers. “Brothers” gradually began to join him, and the little band lived wherever they could find a place. They eventually received permission to be itinerant preachers, typically delivering a message of repentance.
The group was free from the confines of typical monastic communities, which they felt made them more free to serve others. Francis opened the door for laypeople to join the Franciscan spiritual movement, providing a variation of their way of life which could be followed by the average person.
Francis would be known for his deep care of people and of creation. He’s known for preaching to the animals and to a Muslim sultan during the Crusades.
Francis is a fitting person to talk about during this Lenten season, as he embodies a great deal of what Lent is all about. His life was consumed by radical obedience, simplicity, and a presence in the world. In these things we can learn from him.
Some may say Francis went too far in his application of the Bible, but you can’t help but admire how ardently he strove to literally follow the Word of God as he understood it. He took literally Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:9 to go without money, extra clothes, or shoes. He gave up everything—because that’s what he believed Jesus asked of him. Like the rich young ruler, Francis had a call to sell everything and give it to the poor, but in this case, he did so willingly. He modeled his actions after Jesus, going to those who were abandoned in society, particularly the lepers. He read the Beatitudes and obeyed them explicitly. His obedience was marked not by duty but by joy.
Although we may disagree with some of Francis’ interpretation of the Bible, we can be challenged at his willingness to obey it without question. He took Scripture seriously and followed its teachings with joy. His example challenges me to examine ways I might not be willing to abandon all for the sake of the Gospel or ways I’m holding back from complete, radical obedience to the Lord.
Simplicity, Poverty, and Humility
Francis didn’t value simplicity and poverty because he thought they were virtues in themselves but rather because he believed they help us to better understand the message of Jesus. This didn’t include only physical poverty but also the relinquishing of power and influence. Simplicity for Francis was about extreme humility, an invitation to be “subject to all, superior to no one.”
While we may not literally give up all of our possessions and walk around barefoot as Francis did, his example does remind us to call into question the materialistic consumer culture that surrounds us. He reminds us of the value of simplicity and the false allure of stuff, which can hinder our ability to faithfully follow Christ. He reminds us of the value of humility, in sacrificing our own comforts and desires in order to serve.
Presence in the World
While many of the monastic orders of the day retreated into a closed cloister, Francis chose to remain free in the world. He engaged people and the created order in daily life. He took the radical step of inviting laypeople to join his cause. His radical obedience and commitment to simplicity and poverty propelled him outward in service. His dedication to the Lord was not all about introspective prayer—it was prayer on the move. He loved the world and the church, even as others in his time were calling one or both of them evil, and engaged in both realities. He risked his life to converse with a Muslim sultan and share his faith, and formed a surprising friendship with the man in the process.
Francis reminds me that our spiritual lives are not for our own benefit, but rather our growth in Christ-likeness should ever more be expressed in service of others. Our faith is an active one, not simply a private personal one. His example challenges me to consider how my commitment to Christ is best harnessed to be a blessing to the world around me.
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As his followers grew and became more organized, they began to push back against some of Francis’ extreme stances. This would eventually lead him to step down from leadership in 1220. After six years of sickness and frustration at where the movement in his name was going, Francis died in 1226 at the age of 44 or 45. Within two years after his death, the church would begin the construction of an exquisite basilica in his name. With his lifelong desire for simplicity and poverty, I doubt Francis would have appreciated this ironic tribute.