Monday, October 03, 2005

St. Francis of Assisi

Today is the 679th anniversary of the passing of Francis of Assisi.

He was a dropout; a nudist; a collector of strays -- stray animals and stray humans; in short, Francis of Assisi was a hippie. Not at all the sort of character who gets much air-time on network TV in the 21st century. The fact that Pope Innocent III proved to be a generous broadcaster (positioned, as he was, as a primary arbiter of air-time in 13th century Europe) is nothing short of miraculous -- a testament to Francis' charisma and the allure of his gentle mien during an era of unforgiving brutality.

The son of a successful wool dealer, young Francis was addicted to courtly romances about knights and comely maidens, but after fighting as a mercenary in a battle against Perugia when he was 20, his interest in the trappings of knighthood subsided as he became a prisoner of war for a year. After his release, he experienced several epiphanies which, to his father's irritation, led him to give away all of his money and belongings to the help repair God's house (occasionally stealing from his father for such charitable purposes), singing songs of praise and pausing on his road-hikes to kiss lepers on their mouths.

Soon his father decided Francis needed to be locked away as a madman and beaten, but his mother freed him and Francis took up sanctuary in the chapel of St. Damian, to which Francis had provided some of his charity. Incensed, Francis' father marched into ecclesiastical court demanding what had been stolen from him and seeking a declaration of Francis' disinheritance. Francis was all too happy to oblige his father with respect to the latter purpose, taking the opportunity in court to strip naked and hand his father his clothes to emphasize the point. He would have walked out that way had not the astonished (if not somewhat bemused) bishop loaned Francis his own cloak. As Dante would later observe, it was at that moment that Francis joyfully took Lady Poverty as his wife.

Skipping down Tuscan roads, he gained a following: first, a dropout lawyer; next, a peasant; then, a lapsed knight -- one after another, Francis accepted them all, without novitiate. Together they wandered from town to town, begging for staples (no cash accepted) and irritating the sober merchants of Italy with their gleeful antics in the service of Christ. Preaching to the birds (giving rise to his reputation as a tamer of wild beasts), attracting a congregation by playing on a see-saw, dancing and shouting praise with all the verve and intensity of James Brown at the Apollo, Francis was an extraordinarily carefree clown who drew lost souls tightly to him.

When news of his stunts reached Innocent III, the Pope sought a meeting with Francis. Instead of smothering Francis' little movement, however, the Pope saw beyond the gags, convincing himself of Francis' absolute faith and the vigor with which he inspired the illiterate peasantry with his self-imposed poverty and suffering and with Christ's message of love and forgiveness -- things Innocent believed the spiritually sleepy Catholic church then needed badly, despite the unorthodoxy of Francis' methods.

Innocent III recognized the Franciscans as a monastic order in 1210 and named Francis as a deacon, the only religious office Francis would ever hold. Despite Francis' antipathy for rank and organization (leading some to see him as a precursor to 19th and 20th century anarchists), his order grew steadily, and in 1212 he established a "sister" order with the help of his friend St. Clare, the "Poor Clares."

Despite the joy he felt in humility and asceticism, he was quite human. He could be a strict disciplinarian, once ordering a shy monk to preach in the middle of Assisi in his underwear as a way of penetrating the monk's obsession with his own problems -- only to feel guilty about the punishment he assigned to the monk and to join him and preach alongside him in support, stark naked. He also pined, at times, for female companionship, but dealt with it in his own way -- once by going out into the snow and building a poignant snow-wife and snow-child as a way of imagining what he had left behind by the choices he made in his life.

Zeal was his salve, however, and in 1212 he went on a mission to Syria, followed by a mission to Spain in 1214. In 1215, he attended the 4th Lateran Council, where he met St. Dominic. Francis had no interest in administering what had become a flock of 5,000 Franciscan brothers, making no provision for them when they converged on Assisi for a chapter meeting in 1219; the Church stepped in to provide some organization, with buildings and a steady income, despite the damage it did to Francis' original mission of living simply and honoring God.

Rather than face the dissolution of his tribal beginnings, Francis joined the Crusades as a missionary in Egypt and Palestine. Without knowing the language, the gaunt, bleary-eyed Francis sung his sermons to uncomprehending but unavoidably sympathetic infidels. He even gained an audience with Sultan Malik al-Kamil, whom he tried unsuccessfully to convert; the Sultan sent him back home, asking Francis to pray for him "that God may deign to reveal to me that faith which is most pleasing to him." The trip took its toll on Francis' health, leading him to settle down to certain philosophical matters, such as dictating (and ultimately negotiating with the Church) the rules by which he hoped the Franciscans would live, emphasizing poverty, chastity and obedience to Christ.

In 1224, his hands began to bleed while he prayed in the Apennines, by which it is said he began to assume the likeness and sufferings of Christ himself. Near the end, he dictated the stanzas which became the Canticle of the Sun, a poetic account of his view of nature as a signification of God; he died shortly after dictating a stanza in praise of death itself. Shortly after his death, his earliest followers were run out of the Franciscan order; there was no room for them in the reformed order which had resulted from the Church's intervention. Yet Francis was canonized only 2 years after his death, and it is hard to think of more than a half dozen figures in the history of the Church who are as beloved as the hippie from Assisi.

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10:36 AM  

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