October 4th, The Feast of St. Francis of Assisi
St. Francis is most especially remembered for his joy and good cheer. So many movies and books, as well as statues and paintings, have burned into our mind’s eye an image of St. Francis frolicking with the butterflies and playing with animals. The joy of this great saint has been a light to the nations for over 800 years – and it illumines even our own day.
Nevertheless, we will have misunderstood an essential characteristic of St. Francis, if we think of him only in his joys and consolations. In fact, the poor man of Assisi can probably be more truly characterized as a man of sorrows. If it is true that he spoke with the animals and sang to the sun, it is also true that he bore the marks of Christ’s Passion on his body – the holy Stigmata of our Savior.
His vocation was rooted in a love for the lepers, a most unsightly band. Long before he spoke to the birds and danced in the forest, St. Francis embraced these despised persons and kissed their open sores with his own lips. How greatly was this Saint moved by the misery of these poor wretches – he united himself to them, and so was thought mad by even his own family!
Again, recall that St. Francis first heard the Lord’s voice when he was praying at St. Damian’s – our Savior did not speak of the beauty of the world or the warmth of the sun; he said, “Rebuild my Church, which is in ruins.” This sad message hardly accords with our sentimental ideas. St. Francis’ identity came to be bound up in the reform of the Church – he would be in the trenches of filth for the rest of his life, calling for the conversion of sinners.
Moreover, have we forgotten that St. Francis went blind? On account of the many tears he shed for his own sins and the sins of the whole world, this poor monk lost his sight. It is well documented that, after his conversion, St. Francis spent more time weeping than laughing – “Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness.” (James 4:9)
Finally, who can think of St. Francis without recalling his profound devotion for the Passion of our Lord? His calling came from Christ Crucified (in the San Damiano Cross); his vocation culminated in a long meditation on the Cross which won him a participation in the Wounds of our Savior. If Christ is rightly called the “man of sorrows”, so too St. Francis is given in this title – as our Lord gave him a share in his sufferings, the poor man of Assisi now reigns with Christ in heaven!