The Shocking Truth About St. Francis
Published: September 30, 2010
There he stands, placid and peaceful, cradling a stone rabbit in his arms. The statue of St. Francis is a silent guardian in many a well-trimmed yard, serene and safe among the roses and ivy.
But many who cherish such heartwarming statues are non-Christians, even atheists. They know a little about Francis and the animals, and they find that information rather jolly. They might, however, be shocked to learn the real truth.
You see, Francis was anything but safe.
A few facts: Francis was born into a wealthy family in Assisi in 1182. In his 20s he greatly embarrassed his father by behavior the man deemed unfailingly odd. This included dressing in rags and heading into the wilderness to pray.
Francis’ exasperated father eventually sought to disown him. When he was 24, Francis acquiesced quite dramatically by returning all his material goods to his father after stripping himself naked in the town square. From then on, Francis became committed to following Christ in a radical way, which included begging scraps for his supper and sleeping with his head on a stone.
Where did he get such bizarre ideas? Right out of Scripture, it seems. One day, he opened the Bible three times randomly, deciding to take the advice revealed there. The words he uncovered still make Christians flinch today: Christ telling the rich man to give everything to the poor, telling the disciples to take nothing with them on their journey, and admonishing his followers to pick up their cross and follow him.
When Francis endeavored to take these words to heart, ordinary folks didn’t see him as the placid fellow whose likeness graces so many gardens today. Instead, they thought of him as a complete maniac. Bad enough that he was willing to live among wild animals and eat slop for supper, but he also exhibited a deep and abiding joy.
It was this mysterious mirth that attracted other strange men to join him. When they numbered 12, Francis asked the pope to approve a rule for the group’s life—and thus was born what became known as the Franciscan order.
Now if this were a movie, in the next scene you would see plump, well-groomed friars walking peacefully along, singing songs and throwing crumbs to tweeting birds. Townspeople would be opening windows to wave at the men and cheer them on.
In truth, though, Francis and his brothers were far removed from today’s Hollywood icons. Many townspeople feared the raggedy fellows, considering them dirty, wild-eyed madmen. Instead of revering them as men committed to following the Gospels, townspeople hurled mud at them and ridiculed them.
Still, some statue owners might protest: Wasn’t Francis a nature lover with a soft spot for animals? The answer is yes and no. Francis did love animals and birds, but he didn’t worship nature as many do today. Instead, all the creatures inspired him to adore God the creator. And, yes, that included cuddly rabbits but also loathsome worms.
There were also members of the human race who were widely regarded as loathsome, with lepers being foremost. Others studiously avoided them, but Francis and his friars ministered to them. In fact, when Francis encountered a leper on the road, he leapt from his horse to give the man money—and then he did something Christ would have done: He kissed the man. Getting on his horse to leave, Francis glanced back and realized the man had vanished. He took this to mean that Christ himself had appeared to him in the form of a leper.
The stone statues fail to show what really marked Francis as a follower of Christ. He was branded with the bleeding wounds of the crucified Christ and suffered pain for many years. But for Francis this agony was a share in Christ’s passion and drew him ever closer to the one he loved so dearly.
All these years later, Francis continues to mystify and intrigue people, whether they are believers or not. And my prayer for his feast day, Oct. 4, is this: May the owners of stately statues become inspired to learn more about Francis. And may they discover a heart made not of stone, but real flesh and blood. A heart in the bosom of a living saint who is not staid and lifeless, but aflame with love for Jesus Christ.
Lorraine’s newest book is “Death of a Liturgist,” a hilarious romp through a fictional church in Decatur. Artwork for this column is by Jef Murray (www.jefmurray.com). The Murrays attend St. Thomas More Church in Decatur. Readers may e-mail them at email@example.com.