A homily for the Feast of St Francis by Brother Desmond Alban SSS, Sunday October 4, 2020 at the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, New York City
Texts: Galatians 6.14-18, Matthew 11.25-30
On the approach to the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi there is a statue of Saint Francis that I suspect bears little or no resemblance to the image that comes to mind when you hear his name. In this statue, Francis is not portrayed in the distinct habit and cord that I and the other brothers so blithely presume to wear – and he is not shown with the usual joyful exuberance accompanied by a wolf or any tame birds. There is an animal in the sculpture, but that animal is a horse and Francis is riding it. Or just about. It would be clearer to say that he is slumped over it in dejection. And the horse in the statue is depicted as almost as miserable as its rider, the two of them bowed down in confusion and bewilderment.
I have often reflected on that statue. I think of it in a very real way as an expression of Christ the shatterer of dreams. Francis was always, I guess, moved by a vivid imagination, and the statue depicts a moment around the year 1204 or 1205, not long after he had set out at the age of about 22, bankrolled as always by his Father, to seek the fulfilment of the dearest dream of his youth. His plan had been to join the forces of Count Gentile of Manipullo, fighting for the noble cause of the Pope against the Emperor, and he had hoped – it was actually feasible – that he might have been made a knight by the Count, right there on the field of battle. That dream of Francis, ignited by the tales of chivalry, was one that fascinates me, but it is not a theme I intend to expand on today. Suffice it to say that, according to the early Legenda or lives of Francis, it was a couple of actual, literal dreams, ironically, that stopped Francis short on his journey and sent him and his horse back to his home town of Assisi with their tales between their legs.
Frequently we have to face the shattering of what we thought were our most precious dreams before we can embrace the fuller and greater reality of what God calls us to. And not just our dreams. There are the dreams, too, imposed upon us by those who love us, or, at least, feel that they have a stake in our lives and futures. The figure that comes to mind in Francis’ life is his Father, the wealthy cloth merchant who was part of the emerging middle class of late 12th Century Europe. Pietro Bernadone had financed his son’s military adventure, just as he had indulged and financed the extravagant tastes of Francis in both his wardrobe and his lavish entertainment of the fellow youth of Assisi, because Francis was a favorite son, and because of the potentially enhanced status that could result for the family, along with enhanced profitability for the family business. It was a business that Pietro hoped his son would one day inherit. If Francis’ dreams were of military heroism, Pietro’s were unashamedly material, the striving for ever greater economic profit as opportunities opened up for those who weren’t born in the ranks of the nobility but who could rise through society in something that looks, to my British eyes at least, rather like a 12th C Umbrian version of the American Dream. The shattering of Pietro’s dreams for his son Francesco, was, sadly, something from which their relationship never seems to have recovered.
But, mysteriously, ‘no one knows (God) the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him’. Francis was beginning to hear the voice of Christ in his life calling ‘Come to me… find rest for your soul’, and with a simplicity like that of one of the ‘babes’ that Jesus mentions in our Gospel, Francis, however confused, was determined to respond.
Jesus also calls us in the Gospel today to ‘Take my yoke upon you… For my yoke is easy’. The term ‘yoke’ when used by the Old Testament prophets had a political, imperial flavor: Christ may be offering the ‘yoke’ of the kingdom of God in contrast to the yoke of Roman rule. And Francis, too, it seems, is invited to take up Christ’s yoke, the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, in contrast to the yoke of the military-economic system in which those first dreams were founded. He is opting out of the system, or, in his own words, he talks of ‘leaving the world’. But the one thing his life would never be was ‘easy’, so what of that ‘easy’ yoke? The word Jesus uses – ‘Chrestos’ in the Greek of the Gospel at least – may well mean something like ‘apt, suitable, well-fitting.’ An easy yoke is the right yoke, the yoke tailor made to fit. I am reminded of the words of the Lord to St Paul at his conversion, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts for you to kick against the goads.’[i] There may be many hardships, much suffering, in following the path of discipleship to which Christ calls us, but in the end, Francis realized there was suffering of a different kind in the fine clothes and the beautiful chivalric armor that weren’t finally his to wear. Better, far, to take the well-fitting yoke that Christ called him to take. There would still be suffering. Sometimes there would be bewilderment and confusion. There is every indication that the enormous growth of the Order that resulted when God gave him brothers caused just such consternation and bewilderment to Francis in the final years of his life. But suffering, now, would be co-mingled with a profound joy in walking, as Francis expressed it, ‘in the footprints of Christ.’
There are many aspects to unpack in this life of the Gospel and a profound simplicity and poverty, a claiming of nothing as one’s own – not material possessions, not status, or learning or rank or dignity, not even the ministry by which one is called to serve – is a key principle for Francis. At its most fundamental, however, his was a life thoroughly motivated by, and given over to, the vision of Christ. Francis loved Him in the Cosmic Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, by whom and through him all things were made. But Francis loved, too, the tender human Jesus, including both the helpless child of Bethlehem and the suffering Savior on the Cross. Francis, and the Franciscan tradition, have left us a number of distinct patterns of devotion to this most human Jesus, from our Christmas Creche to the Stations of the Cross around our Church, and other prayers and devotions too.
But from everything else I might say, I want to highlight just one more particular aspect that runs like the rings of a tree throughout the length of his life of conversion, in various expressions of one key insight. Francis is celebrated for at least one prayer and at least one pithy aphorism that weren’t actually his, but along with the early 13th C lives of Francis we do have a number of his own writings, including very possibly the very first poem recorded in an Italian vernacular, his native Umbrian – verses from which, in an English translation, we will hear during Communion today – and also his Testament written at the end of his life.
In looking to moments of conversion in Francis’ life, as I did when I began today, there are many that the early hagiographers provide for us. I could have mentioned Francis rebuilding ruined churches, or stripping naked before the bishop, or the talking icon of Christ on the Cross, or more than one incident of just the right scripture at just the right moment, including when Francis sought an almost magical guidance by opening the Gospels at random. But in his Testament Francis speaks of none of these. Rather, he alludes to just one incident, or rather not even the particular incident that is described with varying degrees of miraculous embellishment by his hagiographers and which I’m not going to expand on this morning. He describes, rather, the general way in which he began to discover Christ in a class of people who had previously utterly repelled him, those who were believed to be suffering from leprosy. He writes:
The Lord gave me, Brother Francis, thus to begin doing penance in this way: for when I was in sin, it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers. And the Lord himself led me among them and I showed mercy to them. And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body.[ii]
In his encounters with those exiled from society, the suffering, marginalized and feared, Francis went far beyond simply transcending his earlier fear and disgust. Not only were these human beings, created out of the love of God and worthy of respect, in a profound way he found that they were his brothers and sisters. Brother Leper was the one who taught him the way of the Gospel. Later, like our Lord, he would ‘sit at the tables alike’, as the Principles of the Society of St Francis puts it, ‘of the rich and the poor’[iii], finding all of them to be his sisters and brothers in Christ. And at a time – not entirely unlike our own – when the Christian West was engaged, if not in a ‘War on Terror’ then certainly a war with swathes of the Moslem world, Francis, renouncing his earlier marshal ambitions, would choose, not to fight or to bless the fighting, but rather to take his life into his hands in order to cross enemy lines with a message of peace. In an incident, the veracity of which has recently received increased scholarly support, as described in a recent film, which is itself the fruit of a remarkable collaboration between Moslem and Christian academics and film makers, Francis sought, and achieved, a meeting with the Sultan, Malik Al Kamil[iv]. Though he undoubtedly sought to convert the Sultan, and projections of contemporary interfaith dialogue are somewhat anachronistic, I believe what Francis found in the Sultan was in a very real sense again, a true brother, a brother ‘in Christ’ some modern writers would say, but certainly the offspring of our one creator. It was that sense of kin, of connection, through our common Divine origin, that Francis extends not only to animals and plants, but to the Cosmic bodies, Brother Sun and Sister Moon and even to the elements of Fire and Water, in that Canticle of the Creatures or Canticle of Brother Sun from which we will hear later in our Mass – well, in fact, he doesn’t actually mention animals here!
It is now no surprise, given the character of the papacy that he has expressed since, that our current Pope, though a Jesuit not a Franciscan, made the unprecedented choice to take Francis as his Papal name. It is no surprise, either, that he chose a phrase from that Canticle of Saint Francis, Laudate Si, ‘Praise be to you’, for the title of his second encyclical, his urgent call to the world to ‘swift and unified global action’ in the face of the climate emergency.
As we continue to face this global pandemic, and the even greater climate crisis, as we pray for the President and the First Lady, as we enter the closing period of an election cycle marked by terrible polarization in our public and political life, as some of us try to acknowledge our male, white, educated privilege, or any combination of that, challenged to face the reality of patriarchy, and by what ought to be the obvious truth, and yet one that needs saying, that Black Lives Matter, we need that insight of Francis more than ever. The person with whom I disagree politically in every possible way, the person who grew up in an entirely different world and with an entirely different world view to my own, the person who looks entirely different to me, indeed the whole suffering natural world, all are my kin. Everything created is my sister and brother.
[i] Acts 26.14, NRSV [ii] The Testament of Francis. From Francis of Assisi – Early Documents, Volume 1, The Saint. Editors: Regis J. Armstrong OFM Cap, J.A. Wayne Hellman OFM Conv, William J. Short OFM. New City Press, New York, London, Manilla; 1999 [iii] Principles of the First Order, Society of St Francis, Day 28, revised 1993 [iv] The Sultan and the Saint, Directed by Alexander Kronemer, Unity Productions Foundation, 2016, and screened on PBS in 2018