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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

Saint Francis of Assisi: Revolutionary of the Spirit

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, March 1, 2009


            He is a saint that even Unitarian Universalists can love. While most of us might show little reliance upon saints, per se, in our own spiritual practices (and that’s not true of all of us; and it may also depend on what we mean by “saints”), we nevertheless have a special place in our hearts, many of us, for Francis of Assisi. I mean—what’s not to love? His famous prayer (which Louise sang no nicely just a little while ago) calls upon us to be “channels of peace” in the world. His famous hymn (which we’ll sing shortly) sings praises to all aspects of nature (all five verses full; and that’s shortened somewhat from the original, I believe). I mean, Francis could have written our seventh UU principle: “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” Francis loved peace; he loved nature; he even considered the birds and bees and the sun and moon to be his brothers and sisters. As one of my colleagues has written, Francis qualifies as almost a kind of “UU superhero” based on all of that!

   

            But, of course, Francis was more complicated and complex figure than that. As a man of the 12th century, and as a religious leader of a faith tradition far different than ours, many of us might have real difficulty with other aspects of St. Francis’s theology and belief, of course. But there is nonetheless something enticing about him; something that calls out to us across the centuries; something that speaks to our times still, in spite of the passage of these many, many years.

 

            It is useful, I think, to take a fresh look at the life of this holy man of central Italy.

We have already shared the rudiments of his life with the children this morning, but here are a few more:

 

            Francis was born either in 1181 or 1182 (they’re not sure which) to a wealthy family in the town of Assisi , in the province of Perugia , in the region of Umbria , about a hundred miles north of Rome , smack dab in the middle of the Italian peninsula. According to legend, he was born in a stable, because his mother, when about to give birth, listened to a passing beggar who told her that if she wanted everything to be all right, that her baby should be born in a stable. She named her son Giovanni—John—in honor of Saint John the Baptist (or in honor of John, the beloved disciple; they’re not sure  which)—but either way, because she wanted him to become a great man in the Church, to lead the life of a religious. This did not please her husband, Pietro di Bernardone, one of Assisi ’s leading merchants, who was away on business at the time. Pietro had the baby re-baptized as Francesco, or Francis, in honor of his commercial success in France—and to show his love for all things French-- including his wife, Francis’s mother.

 

            Francis was raised with the full intention that he would follow his father in business. He led a comfortable childhood, and something of a dissolute youth. He was popular with his friends—who even named him their dominus, their “Lord” or “King”—an honor sometimes conferred upon the “coolest” (and usually the richest) kid in town. He drank, and caroused, and generally fooled around—but even here, he showed a certain sensitivity, as in his confrontation with the beggar in the marketplace.

 

            In 1201, when he was about 19, he joined the military expedition against Perugia , and spent a year as a prisoner of war at Collestrada, an experience which definitely seems to have changed his way of looking at the world. He resumed his former carefree ways on his return to Assisi after the war, but then came a serious illness that left him broken and depressed, wondering about the meaning and purpose of his life—and triggering the great spiritual crisis that would alter everything.

 

            He stopped hanging out with his friends, gave up the life of partying and carousing. When his friends asked him if he planned on getting married, he replied: “Yes, but to a fairer bride than any of you have ever seen.” Meaning Lady Poverty, perhaps; or the Church; or the Christian faith—he had decided by this time that his would be the life of a religious. In embracing the lepers outside of Assisi , he confronted both his greatest fear—death—and his greatest temptation—the carnality of the body.

 

            Francis started spending more time alone, in lonely places like caves and deep forests and abandoned churches. He made a pilgrimage to Rome , where he begged at the houses of the rich for the needs of the poor. Returning from Rome , Francis had the first of his mystical visions—this one of the old abandoned Church of Saint Damiano , in the hills outside Assisi . As he knelt in prayer, the crucifix before him began to speak (according to one historian, there was not a crucifix in the 13th century that didn’t speak): “Francis,” the voice told him, “Francis, go and repair my house, which you can see, is falling into ruins.”

 

            Francis took this to mean the church of Saint Damiano (it may also well have meant the Catholic Church in general). To get funds for the project, he sold all his possessions, including his horse. He also sold off some his father’s possessions, as well; about which, as we might imagine, Pietro di Bernadone was none too pleased.

 

            Francis sought sanctuary in a local monastery in order to avoid his father’s wrath. His father had him kidnapped, hauled back home, imprisoned in the family’s cellar, and severely beaten. But to no avail. He then had him arrested, put on trial, where he attempted to disown his son, once and for all. Civil authorities in Assisi threw the case into the lap of the Church; it was a Church matter, they said, because Francis had sought sanctuary in a monastery. At the conclusion of the trial before the bishop of Assisi , Francis himself severed his connection with his family; repudiated his inheritance; even stripped off all of his clothes; and declared:

 

            “Listen to me, all of you, and understand. Until now, I have called Pietro di Bernadone my father. But, because I have proposed to serve God, I return to him the money on account of which he was so upset, and also all the clothing which is his, wanting to say from now on, ‘Our Father who is in heaven,’ and not “My father, Pietro di Bernadone.”

 

            Francis then retreated to the outskirts of town, where he set to work restoring several abandoned old churches, one after another. He dressed in a rough garment fashioned from coarse brown cloth, with a rope tied around the waist; walked around barefoot; talked to the animals, and sang hymns of praise to God continually. Many of the townsfolk of Assisi thought he was crazy; others, however, were impressed by his simplicity, his piety, and his dedication to the literal ways of the Gospel. In the movie version of the events, at least, a young woman named Clare (who would later become a saint in her own right, and founder of her own order, the Poor Clares) comes to Francis and says to him, “People said you were fine when you went off to war and killed and plundered, but now they say you’re mad because you sing like the birds, chase butterflies, and look at the flowers. I think they have it backwards.”

 

            Soon, Francis had gained his first follower—a prosperous lawyer from town named Bernardo di Quintavalle; within a year, he had eleven followers, who declared themselves to be, not priests, but fraters minores, or “lesser brothers”.

 

            Some of those in power feared these Lesser Brothers, lest they drain off support from the established (and somewhat moribund) Church, and spread ideas which might be “heretical”. Others, however, believed that Francis and his followers were simply living radically the very message of the Gospels, and that the Lesser Brothers were, indeed, a positive and authentic assertion of the teachings of the Church. One of these was Bishop Guido of Assisi , who had draped his cloak over the naked Francis as he stood before him on trial in his court. Now, Guido again offered protection to the radical young son of Assisi , and argued his case before Innocent III , the pope in Rome .

 

            Innocent was also a complex figure: a wily politician, who had greatly expanded the power and wealth of the Church. He was also one of the intellectual heavyweights of his day, known as a learned theologian, and generally considered, even by contemporary historians, as somewhat “more spiritual” than your average pope.

 

            Initially, Innocent seems not to have been impressed by this young ragamuffin from Assisi . The first meeting between the two didn’t seem to go very well; he would not endorse the new order; instead, he told Francis to “go home and pray”.

 

            But after that first meeting, Innocent, apparently, had a dream:


            He saw the basilica of St. John Lateran, the pope’s “official” church in Rome . The towers creaked, and the walls cracked, and the whole edifice seemed about to fall down imminently—while the pope himself stood by helplessly. He then saw a small, young man, dressed as a peasant, barefoot, with a rope around his waste, approach the church. He then stood against one of the walls of the basilica, until it steadied, and stood upright again.

            You didn’t have to be a learned theologian to interpret the sign: Francis was the one sent by God to uplift and uphold his sagging Church. The pope called Francis back into his presence, embraced him, and granted ecclesiastical approval to the Rule of his new order—the Fraters Minores , who would henceforth become known as the “Franciscans”.

 

Back in Assisi , now with the approval of the Pope himself, Francis began to preach even more boldly his Gospel message of repentance, simplicity, and most of all, compassion.

 

Francis himself would live only seven more years. But even within his lifetime, miraculous stories became attached to him. It is said that one day, as Francis was traveling with some companions, they happened to a place along the road where birds filled the trees all about them. Francis told the others to wait, “while I go preach to my sister the birds.” Not one of them flew away, as Francis preached to them:

 

“My sister birds, you owe much to God, and you must always and in everyplace give praise to Him; for He has given you freedom to wing through the sky and He has clothed you... you neither sow nor reap, and God feeds you and gives you rivers and fountains for your thirst, and mountains and valleys for shelter, and tall trees for your nests. And although you neither know how to spin or weave, God dresses you and your children, for the Creator loves you greatly and He blesses you abundantly. Therefore... always seek to praise God…”

   

His compassion extended not just to all people, but to all species of creation. They say he calmed the ferocious wolf of Gubbio, by reminding him of his birthright as a creature of God. He removed worms from the middle of the road, so they wouldn’t be crushed by the feet of travelers.  They even say that, on his deathbed, he thanked his donkey for carrying him all those days of his ministry. And the donkey, they say, wept when Francis died.

   

His was a circle of compassion that knew no bounds. His was a reminder to us that we human ones did not weave the web of life, but are only one part of it, and that we are inseparably bound with all other species of creation in that great web of life.

   

His was a call of service to all of us, whatever our stations in life, to take up our crosses and follow in the ways of Love. 

   

His was a call to heed the voice of the True Self within our souls—for by heeding that voice we hear the echo of the divine voice, the voice of God, reminding us of our holy purpose here.

   

But his was also a reminder that, so very often, the world does get it backward, His is a call to heed the True Self—the deep self, the authentic self, the divine self which dwells within—and not the False Self—the surface-dwelling self, the inauthentic self, the self which is but a reflection of society’s sins and evils.

His is a reminder that we discern this voice—this True Voice—by taking care of our souls, and heeding spiritual disciplines, and finding time for silence and darkness and aloneness, and most of all, perhaps, by serving these, the least of our brothers and sisters.

   

The revolutionary spirituality of Francis of Assisi turns the concentric circles of human society inside out. At the center, it places not the high and mighty, the rich and powerful, the comfortable and privileged; rather, at the center of his vision were the untouchables and the unlovable—the poor, the lame, the diseased, even the lepers themselves. It is in ministry to these least among us—and, by extension, in ministry to the poor and broken and sick within each of us—that we find our full humanity—and even more, that we glimpse the divine that is within us.

   

“Compassion is a kind of fire,” writes Matthew Fox, “…it disturbs, it surprises, it ignites, it burns, it sears and it warms. Compassion incinerates denial; it especially warms and melts cold hearts, cold structures, frozen minds, and self-satisfied lifestyles. Those who are touched by compassion have their lives turned upside down. That is not necessarily a bad thing.”

   

In our compassion, Francis reminds us, we kindle the very Kingdom of God , which is in our midst, but which we so seldom see. In compassion, we reclaim our holy birthright as sons and daughters of God, divine sparks of that great Holy Spirit of Life.

  

 


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