Category Archives: Saints

It’s Necessary to Use Words


“Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.” –St. Francis of Assisi

 Along with many colleagues and companions in my progressive Christian denomination, I’ve made frequent use of this saying attributed to Francis of Assisi to make a point about the perils of lip service and the Christian imperative to serve the neighbor. It’s not surprising that we find it appealing. Activism for social justice is a vital part of our denomination’s ethos in ways that verbally commending the gospel to others—evangelism—is not. This much-quoted admonition pithily sums up our liberal credo: Talking about faith is less important than demonstrating it. Besides, Francis said it. It doesn’t matter that we don’t normally venerate saints in my denomination. Francis is hip and counter-cultural; we’re pleased to take his word for things, a word that just happens to lend authority and charm to our bias.

Lately, however, I’ve been reconsidering the usefulness of this saying. For one thing, it’s doubtful Francis ever said it. No early biographer records it among the hundreds of other sayings and stories, historical and apocryphal, attributed to il poverello. Neither is it found in any of his extant writings, which are few in any case.

Of course, the fact that Francis never said it is not in itself sufficient reason to stop using the phrase. Many things that someone never said are still useful. If they reside somewhere in the zip code of the supposed author’s spirit, no harm is done by a dubious attribution. Besides, one can get insufferably pedantic about such things, and more than a bit obsessive. The internet is rife with phony or edited citations from heroes we wish were more like us than they actually were, and to set about correcting them all would be a lifetime’s work of debatable merit.

In this case, however, I believe Francis would’ve been puzzled by this saying and by the use we make of it to defend the notion that preaching with words is of secondary importance to a gospel preached with deeds. In the context of his life and ministry, it seems misleading at best, if not plain wrong. Unlike the famous peace prayer also attributed to him, this saying about preaching appears sufficiently distant from his spirit as to make a correction meaningful, and perhaps even necessary.

He never said it, and he may not have agreed with, but there’s a section of the second Rule Francis wrote for the friars (1221) that suggests a possible origin of its association with him. In Chapter XVII, “On Preachers,” Francis legislates as follows:

No brother should preach contrary to the form and regulations of the holy Church nor unless he has been permitted by his minister. And the minister should take care not to grant [this permission] to anyone indiscriminately. All the brothers, however, should preach by their deeds.

Here Francis mandates that brothers who are engaged in a preaching ministry—the primary ministry of the friars—must be licensed to do so, and that they must take care to conform their preaching to the norms and expectations of the Church. In other words, the friars are not free agents; no one is to go out and preach on his own initiative. Notice, however, that not every brother will be granted permission. Francis charges the minister (he eschewed the term “superior”) to determine the qualified. Brothers denied permission need not feel left out, however, for “all the brothers… must “preach by their deeds.”

For Francis, this is stating the obvious; preaching with deeds is a given. Making it explicit in the Rule is his way of reminding those brothers who are not permitted to preach with words that they participate in the preaching ministry all the same by means of their example and service. For Francis, preaching with deeds is a crucial and holy default position, but he does not elevate it over preaching with words. There’s no “if” in Francis’ conviction that preaching with words is “necessary.”

His stance is unsurprising given the role of preaching in his day when the fear of doctrinal heresy mobilized the repressive machinery of church and state to the point where scholars like R. I Moore can speak of a “persecuting society.” Francis’ contemporaries believed, rightly or mistakenly, that heresy was rampant and infectious, and that one of the primary causes for its appearance was weak preaching by Catholic preachers, made even weaker by their scandalous lives. The way to prevent the spread of this contagion and recover the wayward for the true Church was for Catholic preachers to preach better and more zealously, and to conform their lives to their preaching.

Preaching with words was at the heart of many of the new evangelical movements of the period. The hierarchy kept careful watch over these movements, ruling some out of bounds because of perceived doctrinal deviance, or because of disciplinary failures, especially the failure to secure proper permission to preach from a lawful ecclesiastical authority. Francis was adamant that he and his brothers should stay in bounds; he insisted on solid doctrine and proper process.

Francis was not merely being canny or self-protective. He was a true son of the Church (which did not preclude acts of what one writer has called not civil, but “ecclesiastical disobedience”), and he was fundamentally concerned with the sequela Christi. To follow the Jesus of the gospels as closely as possible meant not only forgoing possessions as an outward sign of an inward renunciation of power; and not only keeping affectionate company with the last and the least, even the officially segregated leper; it also meant preaching the good news, announcing an urgent message, and doing so with words. Preaching was the Franciscan charism every bit as much as the devotion to the poor and pastoral care for the sick for which he and his first followers gained such fame and admiration.

Francis’ own practice is revealing. His first biographer, Thomas de Celano, describes him as a peripatetic preaching machine, in the mode of a George Whitefield or the early Wesley, sometimes preaching in up to five villages a day, mostly in the open air. In the countryside he perched atop bales of hay in granary doorways; in the cities he shouted from the top step of public buildings. He preached to anyone who would listen, as well as to those who weren’t sure they wanted to—it was reported of him that he would crash rich people’s parties and preach to them. According to legend, he even preached to the birds in the trees, from whom he got a much better reception, and to the Sultan of Egypt, who was not persuaded, but warmed to him and gave him safe passage home.

It turns out that he was a fiery sort of preacher, often dancing around or bouncing up and down as he told his listeners “about vices and virtues, punishment and glory…” (Third Rule, 1223, IX). If we were to hear him today, we might find him a bit too blunt for out taste, more like Jonathan Edwards than the sweet proto-hippie Francis of Franco Zeffirelli’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon—or if not like Edwards exactly (for Francis disliked long, elaborate sermons and exhorted the brothers to use words that are “studied and chaste, useful and edifying to the people), then at least like Jesus, who did  not hesitate to name names and call people to conversion in order to receive the good news of mercy with an open heart.

Francis’ words, de Celano wrote, “were neither hollow nor ridiculous, but filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, penetrating the marrow of the heart, so that listeners were turned to great amazement.” This most joyous of all Christian saints was serious about the power of speech—he respected words; and respect for words is another reason I’ve decided to stop saying that we should use them only “if necessary.” Such a sentiment blithely reinforces, I think, the common sense notion that words are in the end “just words,” ephemeral and useless when measured against the efficacy of deeds.

ImageWhen Barack Obama was campaigning for the presidency in 2008, his detractors mocked him for being eloquent. (Some of his supporters were wary of his speechifying too, to be fair.) The implication was clear—eloquence is a dodge for substance. Words about vision and promises sound good, but they are too easy. In the end, they defraud; realizations matter more. Or so one would think. The late Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez recounted a curious incident to a journalist several years ago. It took place during a gubernatorial election in a northern Mexican state where the entrenched ruling party, the PRI, was again on the verge of total victory. Party operatives had bought the attendance of a big crowd of villagers who, eager to earn their pesos, were patiently listening to the customary litany of PRI accomplishments–clean water, new sewers, schools, community centers, more street lights.

Rampant graft meant that most of it was badly built, of course, and things broke or closed down with depressing regularity. Nonetheless, the crowd applauded on cue as each achievement was touted; but way at the back of the crowd, a small man raised a big placard on which he’d scrawled what I think is clearly a sarcastic, but also a massively subversive message: “¡Basta ya de realizaciones. Queremos promesas!”  Enough already with accomplishments! We want promises!

It seems that some accomplishments can’t hold a candle to words; but even more, it seems that people need hope and vision as much if not more than stuff.  Even if all that PRI stuff had been well-built, I imagine that the villagers might still want words as well as deeds, especially words that are transparent enough to raise the curtain on a new heaven and a new earth, lifting our eyes to a horizon beyond the everyday so that we can see what is not yet and thereby cultivate endurance and refine our hope.

No one disputes the assertion that words can be empty, duplicitous, or just plain vapid, but our experience also teaches that words of truth and substance, words of sincere testimony—even words that “only” promise a future or describe a vision and are not always immediately coupled with deeds—have unimaginable and “necessary” power.

It’s instructive that when it comes to the great liberation movements of our time, no one has trouble recognizing the need for and the power of words.  Speaking up and speaking out is dangerous business in such moments—and it is necessary. “We begin to die when we do not speak out about the things that matter,” said Dr. King. “Silence = Death,” proclaimed gay liberation protest signs. When it come to verbal expressions of religious faith and testimony of religious experience, however—even though we say we believe that we too have an urgent message of life and liberation—we seem far less sure.

The supposed Franciscan saying about preaching with deeds is almost irresistible, but if it encourages a subtle denigration of the power of speech to testify effectively to truth; if it downplays not only preaching in the narrow sense, but also evangelism, we probably ought to think twice about its usefulness. For a tradition of faith that stems from a Word—indeed, from the Word—and whose ministry to the world is “bold speech” about God (Acts 4:13), it seems at best ill advised to encourage a lack of confidence in or respect for the necessity of verbal testimony.

We must indeed, as George Fox always insisted, let our “carriage and life preach,” but because the distinctive meaning of the acts we perform is not always self-evident—because they do not automatically explain themselves nor make immediately apparent the peculiar character of the God who inspires them—we must speak. We’ve been called to a way of life that’s grounded in and defined by the person and work of Jesus Christ whose mission we claim as our own. That mission is in part to offer a clear word to the world, a word that, were we to keep still, would not be heard otherwise. Humbly to commend the message of mercy to others in a spirit of hospitable hope that all might know more fully who we are and what we intend, and that some might come to know the grace we ourselves have known in Christ, is not optional for Christians. As Paul asks, “How will they believe if they have not heard? And how will they hear if there are no preachers?” (Romans 10:14).

ImageIn progressive Christian circles, I know this is easier said than done. In my own denomination, the Great Commission sits uneasily on many people, clergy and laity alike. When we speak of evangelism, at best it usually means inviting people to church, which is hard enough for us, especially when we’re talking about inviting the so-called “un-churched” and not just stealing other churches’ sheep. When challenged to do more—to share the Christian story with people who don’t know it, or to share our own stories in the light of the gospel—we falter.

A colleague tested this assertion at a workshop not long ago. The participants were church people active in their local communities and committed enough to spend a long Saturday at a denominational learning event. They agreed that they were very reluctant evangelists. When asked to say what stood in their way, they noted the cultural baggage attached to the word “evangelism,” fear of offending against pluralism, and worry about being judged or rejected as holy rollers or fundamentalists. They worried that others would find them irksome or boring or judgmental. They did not want to impose their beliefs on others. They worried that they didn’t know enough to be able to “defend” what they might say, and this left them feeling intimidated. They wished they felt stronger in their faith and knowledge of the Bible. They worried that they didn’t have the language to tell the story appropriately, correctly, or compellingly. And several said they felt unsupported in their efforts to share their stories with others.

This is not the place to unpack these responses, to offer correctives to some of the assumptions about evangelism, faith, and the Christian story embedded in them, or to offer suggestions of ways to help willing disciples find their testimonial tongues in a fruitful and respectful way. The only point I want to make here is that although it’s a sure bet that every one of those workshop participants was preaching every day with good deeds, the great silence about God that descends when we don’t know how, are afraid, or believe it is somehow wrong and oppressive to speak about the reasons for our deeds, our experience of grace, and our ongoing lives of discipleship, is a silence that necessarily reproaches the Church.

We’ve been given a gift to share for the sake of the world. There’s a huge difference between believing that in that gift we have the answer to absolutely everything and that we are the only true way, and the humble practice of letting our gift be known by commending it to others, speaking with freedom, affection, and gratitude of our experience of God in Christ. This sort of respectful, invitational practice is a lot harder than old fashioned proselytism ever was. There’s no doubt that our current pluralistic context makes it hugely challenging (although people engaged in serious interfaith conversation attest that our current context also makes it hugely rewarding), but that doesn’t justify reticence. Withholding the gift is to break faith with the Giver.

Some people might chalk this silence up to having nothing to talk about. I’ve heard it said that many ordinary “liberal” Christians in the pews of our churches have never really had a vital experience of the gospel that they can share; they are without knowledge, encounter, or desire, content to show up and do unto others. I often wonder whether this perception is true, or as true generally as we think. Could it be that some people don’t recognize their experience for what it is, believing that religious experience should look and feel a certain way, holy somehow, maybe happening in church and not in the laundry or the factory? Is it because people don’t know how to frame their experience, don’t know whether it’s okay to use ordinary words or think they have to learn the right words before they speak? I wonder too whether the church directly or indirectly silences such speech; whether, for example, the liberal ethos of my denomination, with its loud crowing about being non-creedal and believing whatever you want, effectively quashes significant talk about faith, having inculcated in us all a great fear of offending and skepticism about, even disdain for significant religious experience, affirmation, and conviction?

ImageThere is much reflection abroad today about a new reformation and the unknown shape of the church to come. In that conversation, helping every disciple learn to preach the gospel with words should be a major item on the visionary agenda. I know much is being done already; some pastors are actively engaging their people in the practice of testimony, with transformative results. More of us need to follow that example.

It will not be an overnight project, but a long labor of patient encouragement, conversion, and formation, beginning with those of us who have too happily latched onto the permission this supposed saying of Francis has given us to keep our mouths shut. We should aim for communities of faith whose members are as articulate about the gospel’s vision and promise as they are active in the service of others.

Make no mistake, I do not underestimate the power of deeds. It seems silly to have to say so—they are necessary, and on the last day they will be our judge; but deeds always get first billing in my denomination. I want to put in a good word for words.

For Saint Joseph’s Day, March 19

imagesToday is the liturgical commemoration of Saint Joseph, Mary’s husband and Jesus’ father or adoptive father, depending on your tradition. He was, the gospel genealogies report, loosely descended from David, but we think of him more as someone tossed and turned by angels in dreams, a man who could load up a donkey at a moment’s notice.

It’s a villager in Nazareth who tells us he was a carpenter, a woodworking artisan, a stonemason, or perhaps a contractor. But beyond that, we know nothing about him. He disappears from the gospels after he and Mary lose the adolescent Jesus and find him again in the Temple.

Tradition says that Joseph did not live to see his son’s career take off, nor its bitter end. He never knew him as a risen Lord. What carried him away? Did he die of infection or flu? Was he throttled by a client in a dispute over a bill? Did he fall from a scaffold or bleed out after an accident in the shop? If you believe the medieval tradition that he was already ancient of days when he married the Maiden, he might simply have died of old age.

No one knows his end. And no one knows his backstory either—what kind of a boy he was, whether he dutifully ate his peas or tucked them in his cheek to feed them later to the cat, whether he liked bold colors or preferred more muted tones. Had his sleep always been fitful, punctuated by dreams, or would his mother swear, if you could ask her, that he hit the pillow and was out like a light, sleeping like a log till noon?

How did he and Mary get together? Did Joseph meet her for the first time in her father’s living room? Picture it: his parents bring him all dressed up to Anna and Joachim to arrange the union, two good families making a deal for their kids. The older folks drink tea, talk it over, Mary and Joseph quiet, in the corners, eyeing each other, sizing up their chances.

Or this: they’d known each other since they were small. They ran with a pack of neighbor kids chasing balls into the street and building forts together, until the girls started being women, and the boys, men; and so it seemed natural, it was always just assumed, that they’d be wed. And so it came to pass.

Or not. Maybe he really was already old and widowed when they were betrothed, and he was a caretaker only, a protector God appointed as guardian of a divine child, a safe sexless man with a white beard and a lily blossoming from his staff, providing respectable cover for a perpetual virgin Mary.

Did he love her, then, like a father, venerable, affectionate and kind? Or did he love her like a lover, young and vigorous and eager and full of joy? Or like a man bound in duty to love her who keeps his word? Did they have chemistry? Or did they respect each other, grow on each other over the years, momentous secrets between them, stories no one would believe it they told them, so much fear, so much awe?

474px-'Joseph's_Dream',_painting_by_Gaetano_Gandolfi,_c._1790Some say that Joseph was by character and upbringing devout, and therefore unsurprised by angels, always expecting intervention, unquestioning in every ordeal. He sang psalms and praised the Lord in his candid heart as he trudged to Bethlehem, shivered in the stable, fled into Egypt, journeyed back and settled in Nazareth instead of going home. He was sweet and calm and uncomplaining through it all.

[–Gaetano Gandolfi, Joseph’s Dream]

Maybe his mother taught him about life and pain in such a way that it shaped his heart to absorb hard blows. Maybe his father was a man of dignity, and it got bequeathed to him in such a way that he could pull up short at the brink of anger and decide not to expose the pregnant Mary, but put her quietly away. Maybe it was upbringing, example, teaching. He was raised to be loyal.

But for all we know, he could have been a rough man, impervious to spiritual things, someone who tried, but to whom it didn’t come easily, and he felt resentful, deprived of a normal life by the commanding voices in his dreams. Maybe he wrestled like Jacob, resisted like Jonah, railed like Isaiah before giving in at last, like his son would give in later, drenched in sweat in the garden. Was he an unlikely saint, a man God pressed into service, and was it grace, and grace alone, that compelled him to rise to the occasion, the sort of grace that throws a switch in your soul when God decides you are the right man for the job?

He never speaks. Not once does he utter a word. No “And then Joseph said to the angel…” or “Joseph spoke to Mary, saying…” His silence is deep. Did he never say anything clever or wise or portentious enough for anyone to remark, remember, write it down? Did he say some things that were not edifying, embarrassing, not fit to hand on? Or was he as reserved as he appears, with no need to comment, no need to be heard, no compulsion to intrude on the drama and steal a scene?

Did they make him seem distant and aloof to his son, his long silences, his lack of chatter in the workspace, all those quiet meals? Or was it this the child warmed to and absorbed more than any other lesson or skill—the capacity to be and let things be? Was Joseph’s silence the wellspring of the Teacher’s need to steal away at night to hilltops to listen to God, to catch above the din below the cry of suffering and hope? Was this his father’s gift to him when, bloody and accused, he would not be provoked, but stood before Pilate and the cosmos, silent, without a self-defensive word?

In Italy they say that once upon a time when things were very bad, the good Saint Joseph heard their prayers and delivered them from famine, and that’s why they celebrate at Guiseppe’s Table every year, feasting with family and friends, strangers and guests, rich and poor. They eat a special dessert that day too, a round cream puff filled with ricotta and topped with red cherries and glazed orange slices. St Joseph’s sfinge would be enough to make me Italian, if I weren’t already.

In the United States, people have taken to burying little statues of Joseph in the yards of houses they want to buy, asking him to close the deal for them. He is, after all, the patron saint of real estate agents and house hunters, having found or built the house where Mary and Jesus lived and made a happy home for them under the roof of his care.

The 16th century St Teresa of Avila loved him above all other saints, and the first thing she did in her new convents, after making sure the bread that is Jesus was residing in the tabernacle, was to place an image of Joseph in a prominent niche and ask his blessing on the house and the ‘holy family” of nuns who would come to live and pray there.

Because labor movements in Europe had a very pinkish tinge, the Pope, feeling a need to commend work but eschew Marxism, turned to Joseph, who had toiled nobly with his hands, and appointed him to the task. The feast of Saint Joseph the Worker was proclaimed in 1955, and the day set aside to honor all godly labor was May 1, to counteract May Day, a socialist holiday. The Church hoped glad hymns to Joseph would drown out the Internationale.

In the Roman Catholic tradition, Joseph is officially the patron saint of cabinetmakers, carpenters, craftspeople, engineers, builders, the nations of Canada, Korea, China, Peru, Viet Nam, Mexico, dying people, families, fathers, house hunters, people in doubt, pioneers, travelers, the Universal Church, all working people, and pastors. All in all, I’d say that for a man who gets just a few lines in scripture, Joseph has done pretty well for himself over the centuries. Then let us, then, bSt Joseph de la toure glad in him, and pray on this the most ancient of his several feast days (since the 10th century):

Saint Joseph, father of Jesus, husband to Mary, holy insomniac, packer of bags, maker of useful things, and silent as the mystery you cared for, pray for us.

[–Georges de La Tour, Joseph the Carpenter]

Francis Bernadone (1182-1226)


Francis Bernadone, 1182-1226

I like my saints wild. The fierce ones, oddballs, out of kilter, the ones with edges and cracks and terrible visions, the ridiculed and the feared. The ones who sooner or later have to be tamed; who, with the passage of time and shifting angles of vision, must be edited so that you can read about them safely in prim collections of hagiographies, no longer strange, but ‘best-loved,’ birdbath ornaments for your garden.

Like Francis Bernadone. Of Assisi.

You know him—the “make me a channel of your peace” saint. The saint who preached to birds and did behavioral therapy with wolves. The environmentally aware, all-natural, organic saint of harmonious convergence. All that and more. And so much more. For Francis was free. So free, he was dangerous.

He was a young dandy, rich and frivolous. And attractive. He spoke French and sang ballads and threw parties. He harassed street people and had his way with women and was more trouble than his first biographers wanted you to know. Everybody knew him. Most everybody liked him. It wasn’t clear that he liked himself. He was restless.

He wanted something. He felt that it was coming, but he didn’t know what or where or when. Something that mattered. So he went off to war in shiny armor on a handsome horse, hoping maybe it was glory. Loyalty and courage and glory might be the thing.

He returned wounded, traumatized, a haunted peacemaker, turned around by the special grace that flows from the fact of your own futility, that permanent sting in your misled heart and your useless flesh. After that, he could never flee his own flesh or anyone else’s. He was drawn to the useless.

He started paying attention in church. He heard the gospel: “Sell what you have and follow me.” So he gave away what he had. Then he started stealing from his father, giving away what he stole to make beggars warm. There were too many beggars to count.

When his father found out, he dragged him off to the bishop for a public reprimand. Always one for street theatre, he stripped off his clothes in front of his father, the bishop, and half the stunned and clucking town, stripped off his legacy (his father dealt in cloth), stripped off his father’s name. He walked out of the city a newborn, naked as a jay. He had been baptized as an infant. That was the day it took.

He lived in the woods, hiked the mountains, prayed in their caves, and wandered around the olive groves beneath the town. He begged for his food, leaving a blessing in exchange. If there was nothing, he went hungry. If there was something, he shared. Dressed in a penitent’s tunic and belt, barefoot in rain and heat and snow, he was Lady Poverty’s mad courtier, pledging himself to her for life, and to her family of ragged and hungry, too many to count. To everyone’s revulsion, including at first his own, he embraced lepers, kissing their sores. Soon they knew him well in the leprosarium down in the valley outside the walls. He tended wounds. Townspeople pelted him with stones.

One day he was praying in the ruins of an old chapel and saw that a crucifix was still hanging inside. He gazed at it until it spoke to him: ‘Francis, repair my Church.’ And so he did, stone by stone. It is said that what Jesus meant was for him to reform his ‘capital C’ church, but Francis was a literal man. He was not one to do grand things when a tangible needed thing was in front of his nose. Before he was done, he’d repaired several abandoned chapels in and around Assisi, working with his rich boy hands until no one recognized him any more. He became a stranger.

But some young men of the town were moved by him. A few old friends, a relative or two. They joined him, then others came, too, unknown to Francis. All classes and conditions. Before he knew it he was in charge of a growing fellowship. He had no idea it would happen. He was ill-suited to leadership. And he was indiscriminate. He welcomed them all. Sometimes that was a mistake, and he ended up having to kick some bad men out. His companions urged him to put admissions policies in place. He didn’t.

He wanted the pope’s blessing for his growing band, so he walked down to Rome. Medieval Rome. Holy city, unholy cesspool. After some bureaucratic delays, Francis in rags got the blessing he wanted. Legend has it that at the end of his audience with the pope (whose name was Innocent, but who wasn’t very), the great man in ermine and gold came down from his throne, kissed Francis’ feet, and received his blessing.

He loved Sister Clare, who ran away from her noble house in the high part of town to learn to be like Francis. He loved Brother Leo and Brother Juniper and all the men who flocked to him, many of them exchanging, like Clare, finery and privilege for rags and humiliation. Francis wanted them all to be equals and so, among other things, he was wary of books and learning because of the pride and distinctions he believed they engendered. And he didn’t want the brothers to be priests. He loved priests because he loved the Eucharist—it was Jesus himself—and priests were the way you got it. But he wanted the brothers to remain small, menores. That’s what he called them—not the Franciscan Order, but Friars Minor.

His fiercest desire was for peace. More than anything pax et bonum, his habitual greeting. Which is why he is the patron saint of stowaways, having hidden on a boat headed east where he hoped to convert the Sultan to Christ and end the bloody fifth crusade. He was appalled by the Christian armies, their violence and immorality, every bit as much as he was afraid the Saracens would go to hell if they didn’t believe the gospel. He was struck by their piety, praying five times a day. They were also clean. The Christian commanders tried to stop him, but he snuck away under cover of night and crossed enemy lines. He got the audience he wanted, staying several days. Francis explained the good news to the surprised and curious Sultan. He did not succeed in baptizing him, but it is said that the Sultan thought Francis was a lovely man, the best Christian he’d ever met, and made sure he got back safely.

He tried for reconciliation everywhere, adjudicating local disputes, making treaties. Even, it is said, taming a ravenous wolf who was killing livestock and terrorizing people in Gubbio. The deal Francis struck with people and beast stipulated that the wolf would behave if the people fed him. Afterwards, whenever the wolf came trotting into town, newly meek and peaceable, he found food at the doors and left satisfied. The people said, as the wolf loped away, that he reminded them of Francis.

Francis was not naïve. He knew what he was up against. The onslaught of demons, the persistence of violence, the imperviousness of the haughty, the sluggishness of the Church, the sly corruption of error, and the betrayals of his own heart and body. But Francis loved Jesus, and with unhinged joy he sought to be like him down to the last detail of freedom and agony.

And so on days blistering and freezing, he and his brothers prayed and preached on street corners, demanding repentance, announcing mercy. Through nights dark and shimmering, he prayed alone, too; persistently, on a mountain, a half-demented mystic crying loud for Christ. The visions that came to him there were garish and beautiful and full of pain. It is said that on one such night, seraphim he saw in the sky cut the Lord’s own wounds on his scrawny body, his hands, his feet, his side.

And then the poor scarecrow lived just a little too long. Long enough to see his then thousands of brothers dispute his meaning, split into factions, grow to despise each other. Long enough to see new leaders reinterpret him. Saints’ deaths are sometimes bitter like this. Blind and gaunt, on his final night he asked the brothers to lay him on the ground, dust to dust. With his last rasping sigh in the morning he told them, “I have done my part. May Christ teach you to do yours.” He also said, “We have only begun to live the gospel.”

It wasn’t long afterwards that the new leaders began building a gigantic basilica to house his remains. Wildly beloved by the people in the final years of his life, the dead Francis was soon to be a wildly beloved and profitable saint. The way of the world. Our way.

Francis lives now with Jesus in the heaven of his longing. It is said that in the morning mist of Paradise, angels cannot tell the two apart. There are talking birds there, and reformed wolves, and singing water, and Leo and Clare. The Pope too, crooning duets with the Sultan. And there are lepers, thousands of lepers, rosebuds blossoming on their skin where Francis kissed them.

Prayer                                                                                                                                                           Most merciful God, on this day when we remember your servant, Francis, grant your people grace to renounce gladly the vanities of this world, so that by following his example, we may become fierce for justice and delight in every creature with perfect joy.



According to Matthew


–Joseph Sleeping, Gentile da Fabriano

According to Matthew, angels do not sleep: in the small hours they intervene, scattering the sleep of others.

They harry exhausted fathers and tip off shrewd men who hail from far away.

According to Matthew, the world is a place where good people’s dreams bulge with warnings, and hope is barely one hard breathing step ahead of tyrants bent on harm.

According to Matthew, there is an inexhaustible supply  of tyrants.

Angels have to work overtime; even then children die.

Only one escapes this time.

He will grow to be the sort of man who accepts angelic ministrations in wilderness and garden, but no more intervention.

Even forewarned, he will not flee; not even put up a fight.

Sequela Christi: Francis and the Leper

Francis is easy to diminish: he’s a bird-preaching saint, a wolf-taming saint, a saint in your backyard propped up in a bathtub shrine, Francis on the half-shell. He is the peace saint, the ecology saint, the troubadour, the juggler, the Brother Sun, Sister moon, Donavan-Zeffirelli romantic, twirling ‘round and ‘round in a golden plain turning blood red with wild poppies as the sun heats up in May. He’s a lovely man.

Yes, he was.

And he was fierce and terrible in his loveliness, a medieval madman who wanted to be poor, poor as the wretched refuse that crowded every European town in the 13th century and filled the nostrils with the stench of that poverty. He wanted to share their lives. For him there was no middle way. It was who Christ was, it was where he would find him.

It is said that Francis, at the end of his life, got his desire to be literally like Christ. After he had been engaged in an intense period of prayer, people reported seeing wounds in his hands and his feet. It is also said that every day after that until he begged to be laid naked on the cold stone floor of his cell to finish dying, he suffered the pain Jesus knew on the cross.

I don’t know about that, and neither does anyone but Francis and God. Here’s what I do know. The fullness of Francis’ transformation into the Jesus he loved so much did not happen on Mount Alvernia when the mark of nails was seared into his flesh. If it happened at any one moment, it was  two decades earlier. He had gone to Rome to find faith and forgiveness at all its shrines. He had found none. In fact the only place where anything like insight had come to him was when on impulse he paid a poor man to change clothes with him, and spent the day in the streets of the city begging with the beggars.

It was not a serious moment. Play, really. But it shifted something.

On his way home, on the outskirts of town, Jesus was waiting for him in the road. And Francis, who somehow knew he was coming, got off his horse and went to him. Here is the story:

Excerpted from Salvation: Scenes from the Life of St. Francis, by Valerie Martin,

The leper stands in the middle of the road, perfectly still. One hand rests on the bell cord around his neck, the other hangs limply at his side. He is dressed in a filthy garment, patched together from bits of sacking and undyed wool, which hangs loosely upon his emaciated body. He regards Francesco and the horse steadily, his head slightly turned and his chin lifted, the better to see them, for his disease has eaten away half his of face and he has only one eye.

Francesco does not speak, he cannot move. They face each other on the road, and the sun pours down over them, so that there are no shadows anywhere, nothing to soften or dim the reality of this encounter and nowhere to hide from the necessity of playing it out. The leper’s eye drills into Francesco; he can feel it penetrating into his brain. From childhood he has had a horror of lepers, and he has always avoided the  lazaretto at the foot of Mount Subasio, where they sometimes congregate in the road, ringing their bells and calling out for alms. The stench rising from their rotting flesh, their phlegmy, guttural voices, pursue him in dreams, from which he wakes sweating and shouting for help.

But this is no dream, and there is no point in shouting now, for no one will hear. He glances back down the road and into the neat ranks of olive trees. The world is uncommonly still.

He could ride on. There is no reason to stop. As he passes, he can throw down his last coin to the leper. His horse lifts one hoof and paws the dirt. It is time to go on, to go home. As Francesco drops his hand to the reins, his eyes fall upon his own expensive, well-fitting glove, and it dawns on him that this leper is not wearing gloves, which is odd; he and his kind are required to wear them when they leave their hospitals, just as they are required to wear and ring their bells to warn the unwary traveler of their approach. Again Francesco looks down upon the solitary figure of the leper, who has not moved a muscle. His hand is still wrapped around the cord of the bell, his head arrested at an angle. He is like a weatherbeaten statue, and Francesco has the sense the he has been standing there, in his path, forever.

Something has been coming toward him, or he has been coming to something; he has known this for some time, and he has bent his energy in the direction of finding out what it might be. This was the reason for his pilgrimage to Roma. At the shrines he recited the requisite prayers, gazed upon relics, bones, bits of hair and cloth, vials of blood and tears, proffered the proper offerings, but he did not feel the burden of his sins lifted, and this spiritual restlessness drove him on. Only when he was with the beggars beneath the portico at the basilica did he feel some respite from this condition of urgent expectancy.

He is in the grip of it again as he swings one leg over the saddle and drops to the ground beside his horse. The stillness of the world makes every sound acute: the clicking of the bridle chain as he leads the animal to a green patch nearby, the sound of grass tearing, and then the big jaws grinding as the horse chews the first clump. Francesco runs his hands through his hair, bats the dust from the front of his surcoat, and turns to face the man, who is there, waiting for him.

The leper watches him with interest. His blasted face is bathed in sunlight; the black hole that was his eye has a steely sheen, and a few moist drops on his lips glitter like precious stones. He moves at last, releasing his bell cord and extending his hand slowly, palm up, before him.

This supplicating gesture releases Francesco, for it dictates the countergesture, which he realizes he longs to make. Without hesitation, he strides across the distance separating him from his obligation, smiling all the while as if stepping out to greet an old and dear friend. He opens his purse, extracts the thin piece of silver inside it, and closes it up again. He is closer now than he has ever been to one of those unfortunate beings, and the old familiar reaction of disgust and nausea rises up, nearly choking him, but he battles it down. He can hear the rasp of the leper’s diseased, difficult breath, rattling and wet.

The war between Francesco’s will and his reluctance overmasters him; he misses a step, recovers, then drops to one knee before the outstretched hand, which is hardly recognizable as a hand but is rather a lumpish, misshapen thing, the fingers so swollen and calloused that they are hardly differentiated, the flesh as hard as an animal’s rough paw. Carefully, Francesco places his coin in the open palm, where it glitters, hot and white.

For a moment he tries to form some simple speech, some pleasantry that will restore him to the ordinary world, but even as he struggles, he understands that this world is gone from him now, that there is no turning back; it was only so much smoke, blinding and confusing him, but he has come through it somehow, he has found the source of it, and now, at last, he is standing in the fire. Tenderly he takes the leper’s hand, tenderly he brings it to his lips. At once his mouth is flooded with an unearthly sweetness, which pours over his tongue, sweet and hot, burning his throat and bringing sudden tears to his eyes. These tears moisten the corrupted hand he presses to his mouth. His ears are filled with the sound of wind, and he can feel the wind chilling his face, a cold, harsh wind blowing toward him from the future, blowing away everything that has come before this moment, which he has longed for and dreaded, as if he thought he might not live through it. He reaches up, clinging to the leper’s tunic, for the wind is so strong, so cold, he fears he cannot stand against it. Behind him, the horse lifts his head from his grazing and lets out a long, impatient whinny, but Francesco does not hear him. He is there in the road, rising to his feet, and the leper assists him, holding him by the shoulders. Then the two men clutch each other, their faces pressed close together, their arms entwined. The sun beats down, the air is hot and still, yet they appear to be caught in a whirlwind. Their clothes whip about, their hair stands on end; they hold on to each other for dear life.

Making Joy: Francis Preaches to the Birds

In a collection of 14th c. legends about Francis, I Fioretti, each vignette is a clear echo of Francis’ spirit and personality, but these “little flowers” are hardly the stuff of cold hard fact. And that’s just right. For there’s nothing like a story to tell us the truth.

Several of the fioretti involve animals. And miracles. Although not miracles so much as signs, like Jesus’ miracles were. Signs of the intentions of God to work life in the midst of death, draw joy from the wells of pain, make rich the poor, and refresh all creatures with freedom. Signs of a new heaven and a new earth, the Garden that was, and is, and is coming.

In these stories when Francis speaks and acts, it is as if we are deposited in that Garden: humans and beasts are at ease with one another, the cosmos is attentive to God, and all created things are responsive to their charge to be creatures, and simply by being creatures to glorify God.

When Francis and natural things are engaged in creature-to-creature delight, we who hear of it through stories like these are ushered into the time beyond time, as a newer hymn says, in which “praise is the healing, praise the glory, praise the final mystery.”

And in this praising lies the simplicity and freedom of what some have called original blessing. The simplicity and freedom, the lightness that lifts the wings of birds and the hearts even of the poor.

When Francis strides into a field—ragged, penniless, a man transported with joy that he is in infinite debt—and preaches that blessing to the birds, morning breaks like the first morning, blackbird speaks like the first bird.

Here’s the story:

Francis Preaches to the Birds

A short time after his conversion, Francis was uncertain about what he should do—whether to go apart from the world and devote himself only to prayer, or go into the world and preach the Gospel. And so he called Brother Masseo and said to him: “Go to Sister Clare, and ask her to pray that I may see clearly whether it is God’s will that I should preach. Then go to Brother Silvester, and ask him the same favor.” Brother Masseo did as St Francis said.

After a while, Brother Masseo returned to Francis. Francis received him with love, washed his feet, and served him at dinner. Then he called Brother Masseo into the forest. He knelt down before him, and said: “What answer do you bring me? What does my Lord want me to do?”

Brother Masseo answered: “The Lord has revealed to Brother Silvester and Sister Clare that you should preach; for you have not been called to help yourself alone, but also to help others.”

Then, filled with joy, Francis got up, and said, “Let us go in the name of God!” He took Brother Masseo and Brother Agnolo and set out, but he did not choose the road: he let himself be guided by God’s Spirit.

Along their way, Francis saw a great multitude of birds on some trees, and he was very taken with them. He said to his companions, “Wait for me here. I am going to preach to my little sisters the birds.”  He set off into the field. There he began to preach to the birds on the ground, and all those on the trees also flocked to him. They listened attentively to Francis, and did not fly away until he had given them his blessing.

Here is what Francis said to the birds:

“My little sisters the birds, you owe everything to your Creator. Therefore you should sing God’s praise always and everywhere, because God has given you freedom to fly; and although you neither spin nor sew, you have been given beautiful clothing. God sent two of your species into the Ark with Noah so that you might not be lost to the world; and God feeds you, though you neither sow nor reap. God has given you fountains and rivers to quench your thirst, mountains and valleys in which to take refuge, and trees in which to build your nests. Your Creator loves you very much. So, my little sisters, do not ever be ungrateful, but praise. Praise God.”

[“God’s Fool,” by Frank C Gaylord, of Barrem VT. Found in SS Peter and Paul Cemetery in Naperville, Illinois.] 

Then the birds began to open their beaks, stretch their necks, spread their wings, and bow their heads, showing their joy by their movements and their songs. Francis rejoiced with them, giving thanks to the Creator. Then he made the sign of the cross, and let them fly away.

All the birds rose into the air, singing. They divided themselves into four companies. One flew towards the east, another towards the west, one towards the south, and one towards the north; each company singing most wonderfully as it flew, encumbered by nothing; signifying that Francis and his brothers, and Clare and her sisters, like little birds, should possess nothing in this world, but should cast all the care of their lives on the goodness and providence of God.


Making Peace: Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio


Francis’ world was all about war.

The war between his father, a wealthy middle class cloth merchant climbing the social ladder, and Francis, with his natural impulse to generosity, giving away his father’s things to beggars on the street.

Constant war among the hilltown communes.

Struggles between the pope and the emperor.  Conquest, invasion, pogroms.

And a church split into heretical movements, the most persistent  of which denied the true humanity, the real human flesh, of the Savior.

Francis had gone to war before his conversion. He was not a good soldier. He was afraid, he was horrified, he got sick. After his conversion, he was determined to make peace. To reconcile enemies. To befriend everyone.

This was not, however, a mere psychological reaction against violence. Because by now he had read the gospels. And he had heard a voice tell him to mend the church. He thought it meant a chapel that had fallen into disrepair, and so he became a builder. But the charge went deeper: to mend the riven church, and to extend the mercy of mending  to the whole world.

That’s why he gathered a company around him. That’s why he sent them to preach compassion. That’s why he is the patron saint of stowaways, having hidden on a boat going East where he hoped to convert the sultan and end the bloody horror of the Crusades. He did not succeed, but it is said that the sultan thought he was a lovely man, and made sure he got home safely.

He was not naïve. He knew what he was up against.  But he believed in Jesus. And so he kept at it, even when in the last years of his short and painful life, his own brother Franciscans went to war with him about the most important thing of all—the vow to be poor, to own nothing, and thus to be free of the vested interests that come with possessions so that one could be an unencumbered maker of peace among all who called each other enemies.

It’s a battle Francis lost to semantics—the new rule was that the brothers would not own things, but they could make use of things. Before Francis was cold in his grave they began to build the great stone basilica where today his body lies.

“Make me an instrument of your peace,” Franciscans pray in his spirit.

“O send us an instrument of your peace,” prayed the good folk of Gubbio. And they really needed one.They had a wolf. Or better said, the wolf had them.

Along came Francis, filled with compassion for the terror of the people, and, please note, filled with compassion for the hunger of the wolf.

Here’s the story:

Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio

From I Fioretti [The Little Flowers of Saint Francis]

While Francis was living in Gubbio, a large wolf appeared in the neighborhood, terrible and fierce. He preyed on livestock, and he ate people too.  And because he often lurked near town, everyone went about armed, as if going to battle. But all defense was useless. Anyone whom the wolf surprised alone was devoured. Because they were so afraid, the people did not dare venture outside the city walls.

Seeing this, Francis was moved with compassion. He decided to go and meet the wolf, although everyone begged him not to. Putting his confidence in God, he started out of the city, taking some of the brothers with him. But they held back at the gate, and so Francis went alone towards the place where the wolf was known to lurk, while people watched from a distance.

The wolf saw him coming, and he charged Francis with his jaws wide open. Francis cried out: “Come to me, brother wolf. But I command you, in the name of Christ, not to harm me nor anybody else.”

Immediately, the terrible wolf stopped in his tracks and closed his jaws. He approached Francis quietly, and curled up at his feet, meek as a lamb.

Then Francis said to him: “Brother wolf, you have done much harm in this land, destroying and killing the creatures of God. You have destroyed livestock and people. You deserve to be hanged like a murderer. Everyone cries out against you, the dogs pursue you, all the inhabitants of this city are your enemies. But there can be peace, O brother wolf, if you stop harming them, and if they forgive you all you sins.”

The wolf listened to Francis. Then he bowed his head, and by that sign agreed.

Then Francis said: “Because you are willing to make peace, I promise you that you shall be fed every day by the inhabitants of this land as long as you live among them; you shall no longer suffer hunger, because I know it is hunger that makes you do so much evil. But if I can get the people to agree, you must promise for your part never again to attack any animal or human being. Do you promise?”

Then the wolf, bowing his head, consented.

“Brother wolf” Francis said, “Can I trust your promise?” And he extended his hand. The wolf lifted his right paw and placed it in Francis’ hand, giving him his pledge.  Then Francis said: “Brother wolf, follow me now, without hesitation or doubting, that we may go together to ratify this peace which we have made in the name of God.”

And the wolf walked along by his side as meekly as a lamb.

All the inhabitants of Gubbio, men and women, small and great, young and old, flocked to the market-place to see Francis and the wolf. Francis said: “Listen, my sisters and brothers: this wolf has promised to make peace with you. Now you must promise to give him each day his necessary food; and if you consent, I promise in his name that he will most faithfully observe the agreement.”

Then they all promised to feed the wolf to the end of his days.

Then Francis, addressing the wolf, said again: “And you, brother Wolf, do you promise to keep the compact, and never again to offend man or beast, or any other creature?”

The wolf knelt down, bowed his head, lifted his paw, he placed it in Francis’ hand .

Then all the people lifted their voices to heaven, praising and blessing God.

The wolf lived two more years in Gubbio. Every day he went from door to door without harming anyone, and all the people received him courteously, feeding him with pleasure, and no dog barked at him.

When the wolf died of old age, the people mourned his loss; for when they saw him going about so gently amongst them all, he reminded them of Francis.