When I signed up for a master’s-level course in Italy to study Medieval Art and spirituality, my mind took the route directly to my stomach. I immediately thought of pizza, pasta, and gelato. I could taste the crisp wine on my tongue at the very moment I purchased my plane ticket. Yet, the course title carried an almost ironic tone to this fan-girl of the Reformation. My seminary made Medieval Art and spirituality sound hopeful, but I’d always considered the medieval times the Dark Ages. I couldn’t possibly imagine what I’d learn from such an obscure period. Especially an obscure Catholic period.
As a Protestant, my relationship with Roman Catholicism seems somewhat estranged. I have perceived “RC” as the distant cousin of the faith—the cousin who, although we both started out with the same fundamental upbringing, made a few controversial decisions and eventually led to a split in the family tree.
I was wrong.
Instead, in my study of this thousand-year era, I was confronted by my own ignorance. Some of the most radical Catholic figures of faith lived during the time period I had written off as more or less useless. Because of their lives I left Italy inspired by their commitment to the triune God. I came to appreciate one historical Catholic in particular, St. Francis. One day we meandered through the streets of Assisi and took in the San Damiano chapel while recapping the life of St. Francis. And I’ll never be the same.
Meeting St. Francis
From the stories I’ve read, Francis strikes me as the type of guy that everyone liked growing up. I picture him as an easygoing, jovial leader among his adolescent peers. And although he knew how to have fun, he didn’t leave a trail of misdemeanors or immorality to commemorate his youth. As a young adult, he valued loyalty, both to his family and to his city, and he took seriously his knighthood and commitment to defend Assisi with honor and valor. By all standards, Francis was a good person. Yet, God transformed his contentment with that which was good into a passion for that which is godly.
A number of incidents contributed to his conversion, but two stand out as catapults for his ultimate surrender. First, Francis received a vision that bade him return to Assisi from war and devote himself to prayer and solitude in order to discern his calling. Then, in a moment of revelation, he was summoned to, “Go, [Francis], and repair my house which, as you see, is well-nigh in ruins,” outside of the pillaged walls of San Damiano. At once Francis pledged himself to the physical, and later to the spiritual, beautification of Christ’s church. He focused on loving the outcast and marginalized as he set out to imitate the very life of our savior. This pursuit would be costly for Francis. He lost the approval of his family and understanding of the people of his town. He gave up his fancy clothes and family title to live a pauper’s life loving Christ’s church.
Just recounting my experience evokes the same goosebumps I felt on my entrance to the grounds of the San Damiano chapel. Although weeks have passed since my feet wandered into the austere brick building restored by his hands, I remain stunned. I marvel at the virtuous example that his ministry leaves behind.
Francis took seriously his commitment to emulate the life of Christ. He not only associated with “the least of these,” but he loved them—through his words and his deeds, he loved them. It’s reported that Francis once gave alms to a leper, but in his desire to image Christ, he overcame his natural repugnance for lepers by kissing the hand of one. It’s no surprise that his zeal attracted followers wherever he hung his cloak and preached the gospel.
Living like St. Francis
For the sake of Christ Francis felt compelled to withhold nothing. He forsook everything—worldly goods and familial ties—to embrace a life of poverty and wholly devote himself to Christ’s church. I can’t help but see the contrast with my own devotion. I rarely feel compelled to deny myself an extra fifteen minutes of sleep to intercede for the wounds of the world. I cannot recall the last time I went without food or clothing or money or family honor to lift my neighbors out of want. I love myself and my comfortable life to the neglect of others. And truthfully, fear holds a monopoly on my heart. Fear convinces me that in giving my portion will lack, and in trusting God, disappointment certainty awaits.
The legacy of Francis reminds believers today of the insurmountable incomparable value of Christ. Simultaneously, the life of St. Francis challenges me to reconsider whether I take the gospel seriously enough. As I reflect upon the legacy of this beloved saint and others like him, I wonder whether I have enough courage to singularly devote my life to imaging Christ. In fact, I wonder if it’s courage I need, or if it’s faith—faith that Christ is enough for me. Faith that his worth surpasses the world’s best thing.
Through the life of St. Francis, a Catholic who lived during the Dark Ages, I was reminded that the concern of the gospel not only centers upon what I will give up for Christ, but also, what I will give because of Christ. More now than ever, I am convicted to offer everything for the sake of Christ and his treasured church.
A prayer of St. Francis of Assisi (before a Crucifix)
Most high, glorious God,
enlighten the darkness
of my heart and give me Lord,
a correct faith, a certain hope,
a perfect charity, sense and knowledge,
so that I may carry out
Your holy and true command.
Cover image taken by Chantelle Hobbs
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