In this first of a series, Life Lessons from Franciscan Saints
, we begin with the founder of the Franciscan Order, St. Francis of Assisi. Here are seven life lessons we can learn from the “Little Poor Man of Assisi.”
Lesson 1: We All Have a Past
Before he was St. Francis of Assisi, he was simply Francis Bernadone, a young man caught up in the spirit of his age and not very concerned with the things of God. The wealthy son of a cloth merchant, Francis wanted for nothing. In many ways he was a pampered and spoiled child. He was the leader of a group of rabble-rousers who indulged in pleasures and donned flamboyant clothing. His earliest biographer, Thomas of Celano, writes in his First Life
that, “until the twenty-fifth year of his age he miserably squandered and wasted his time.” Celano states that Francis surpassed all of his peers as an instigator of evil deeds and was a proud young man, given to vanity. Francis would later write of himself simply, “I lived in sin.” We all have a past – saints included – and very often we are not proud of every aspect of our past. Certainly Francis of Assisi would later weep for his unfaithfulness to God, but he did not remain paralyzed by his guilt. He moved forward and allowed God to love him despite his sinful past. Each of us must learn to do the same!
“No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.” – Luke 9: 62
Lesson 2: God Speaks Through Our Suffering
Statues of St. Francis are often found in gardens where the concrete saint is gingerly fingering a stone dove in one hand and a basin of bird-bath-water in the other. Many movies and books about St. Francis exaggerate his fondness for nature and the beauty of creation. While there is truth in all of this, Francis' love of creation must not overshadow his love of the Crucified Christ. Francis of Assisi was a man who endured great suffering and hardship. Francis spent a year in a dark, dank cell in Perugia after being captured in battle. During this time he became very ill and was not released until his father paid his ransom. Later, upon learning of his son’s desire to forsake the family business and follow Christ, his father beat him and locked him in the family basement. Later in life, Francis would suffer from a painful eye condition made worse by the barbaric treatment of the times. If all this was not enough, he would bear the stigmata, the nail marks of the Crucifixion in his hands and feet. Like Francis, we will all encounter suffering in our walk with Christ. We must never see suffering as a proof of God’s absence. Rather, we must see with St. Francis of Assisi that God works through our suffering, teaching us to love, to trust, and to bear our burden with humility and patience.
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” – Matthew 16: 24
Lesson 3: God Calls Us Out of Our Comfort Zones
Like every one of us, Francis of Assisi had his weaknesses. There were things and situations that made St. Francis very uncomfortable. For one, Francis had a strong aversion to lepers. The Legend of the Three Companions
states that he “shuddered” at the very sight of them, hiding his eyes and holding his nose. One day, while riding horseback near Assisi, Francis encountered his nightmare: a leper was straying on the fringes of the town. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Francis dismounted and approached what he so vehemently detested, a leper. Throwing his arms around the man, Francis embraced him as a brother. He would later write that at that moment, “what was so bitter was changed into sweetness.” Secondly, Francis did not have the gift of organization or natural leadership. Suddenly thrust to the head of a rapidly growing order of brothers, Francis must have felt very ill-equipped. Yet, he made do with what he had, trusting that it was God’s work and not his own. Like St. Francis, God will very often call us out of our comfort zones in life. It is in such situations, where we feel inept, incompetent, and afraid, that we must rely on God to do what we cannot. It is outside of our comfort zones that conversion happens!
“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” – Joshua 1: 9
Lesson 4: It's Okay to Ease Up Sometimes
Nobody could ever accuse St. Francis of Assisi of laxity in religious observance. The man fasted for long periods, slept on the ground with a stone for a pillow and embraced a rigorous austerity. At the same time, Francis knew there were times when charity called for a moderation of his rigorous routine. One night, while all of the friars were sleeping after a day of fasting, a cry broke the night silence. “I am dying. I am dying,” called one of the friars. Francis, realizing that this man was struggling to maintain the fast, insisted that all of the brothers take something to eat. He did not want this brother marginalized or embarrassed. Like St. Francis, we too may have a very certain and clear approach as to how we are to live and the best course of action to take. Yet, there will arise situations and circumstances in which the Lord is calling us to look to the needs of another before our own, to put aside our own desires for the sake of a suffering brother or sister.
“Whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” – 1 John 4: 20
Lesson 5: It's Okay to Feel Confused
There were periods in the life of Francis when confusion completely clouded the mind of the saint. At one point, Francis was sure he was called to seek glory in battle and join the Crusades. After journeying only two days from Assisi in full armor, Francis received a dream in which God told him to return home. This was not his path. Later, in the crumbling ruins of the church at San Damiano, Francis was praying before an icon of Christ. Suddenly, he heard a voice: “Francis, rebuild My Church which is falling into ruin.” The young man jumped to his feet and set about collecting large stones to repair the church. A wiser man looking on might have suggested: “Francis, I don’t quite think that is what God had in mind.” Indeed, Francis would later understand that God was calling him to rebuild the church, the people of God, through the witness of a holy life. In our walk with Christ, we too will encounter periods of deep confusion and doubt. What is God asking of me? What am I to do in this situation? The Lord may feel far from our prayers for guidance. Like St. Francis, we must take a step forward in faith, full of goodwill and trusting that the God of love is guiding our steps.
“All things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” – Romans 8: 28
Lesson 6: Saints Struggle with Chastity
As a priest who has the grace to hear confessions, I know that many, many people today – young and old, male and female – struggle with chastity. We live in culture that is saturated with sexual stimulation. Whether it is the billboards, the magazine racks at the supermarket or the pop-up ads on the internet, temptations against chastity are everywhere. This is a sin which leads to a grave sense of guilt and unworthiness. We should take heart in the fact that great saints like Mary Magdalene, Augustine of Hippo, and yes, Francis of Assisi, struggled with temptations against chastity. On different occasions, when he was severely tempted, Francis of Assisi would throw himself into snow or thorn bushes. One day, feeling particularly lonely and tried, Francis built a mock family for himself out of the snow. The masters of the spiritual life advise us not to fight against a lustful thought, but instead to turn our mind immediately to some indifferent object. If its snowing outside, you just might try St. Francis’ approach!
“Avoid immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the immoral person sins against his own body.” – 1 Corinthians 6: 18
Lesson 7: Prayer is Essential
The Catechism of the Catholic
, in no. 2725, states that “The spiritual battle of the Christian's new life is inseparable from the battle of prayer.” Francis had discovered a God who loved him, despite his former way of life. Now, Francis wanted to respond to that love and be close to God. The only way this could happen, Francis knew, was through prayer. Francis learned to pray through praying. As a young man very active in his social circle and learning the family trade as an aspiring cloth merchant, Francis had little time or inclination to silence and interior recollection. These were skills that Francis had to learn through dogged perseverance. Upon his conversion from his former way of life, Francis began to spend long periods in solitude in the fields of Assisi. He would withdraw into isolated caves to be alone with God. Francis was so faithful to prayer that one biographer would write of him at the end of his life: “Francis did not so much pray as he became a prayer.” Like St. Francis, God is calling each one of us to a deep and personal relationship with Him through Jesus Christ. This relationship is realized, grows and finds its nourishment in prayer. At the beginning prayer is a struggle. In our world of instant downloads and ever-present technology, silence can seem scary. Yet, it is through persevering in silence that we will discover the God of love.
“In those days he departed to the mountain to pray, and he spent the night in prayer to God.” – Luke 6: 12
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