The Earlier Francis


Unlike so many devout people, he knew not how to condemn.

Two days ago, I finished reading Donald Spoto’s Reluctant Saint: the Life of Francis of Assisi.  I knew that Francis had been unusual and that his way of life was important to the church and continues to be important for us precisely because he neither rose to power nor sought to. Francis took the “not much loved” (as Martin Luther would later call it) way of humility, self-denial, and service to the least regarded in society. Spoto writes of him, “Unlike so many devout people, he knew not how to condemn.” That observation alone provides more than enough contrast with self-serving piety and angry religious identity politics to make Francis a man for our time as well as for his own.

This biography of Francis makes no pretense to neutrality or objectivity but seeks openly to understand and interpret the man’s strange and often self-damaging choices, oddities, and humble rejection of greatness. Spoto writes, “Nor would he find God in any standard by which the world judged success.” Quietly but firmly, Spoto also steers us away from sentimental caricatures of Francis (preaching to birds) and superstitious misinterpretations of his holiness (bearing on his body the marks, stigmata, of Jesus’ wounds). Of the sentimental, Spoto writes, “Francis is no nature mystic, no philosophical transcendentalist, no romantic, pantheistic poet,” and even offers a social allegory for reinterpreting the image of Francis preaching to birds. Of the superstitious, he writes even more pointedly:

Unfortunately, a kind of materialistic piety that emphasizes the extraordinary has come to prevail even more tenaciously since the Enlightenment of the 18th century. This attitude is the best ally rationalists have, for it is easy to discount a religious sensibility that effectively reduces great and symbolic visions to the level of a pious sideshow. Paradoxically, in stressing the mystery of the stigmata, his supporters do not elevate Francis of Assisi: he becomes instead a kind of religious freak, completely alienated from our experience.

Francis indeed had marks on his body. He had touched, washed, and embraced lepers continually over the years, and had denied himself adequate food and physical care, admittedly (but not proudly) neglecting the well-being of his own “brother body.” He suffered terribly in his final years, and his pain was compounded by horrific attempts at healing by cauterization. In a spiritual and symbolic sense, we might well say he bore the marks of Christ on his body, not because he abused that body, but because he gave himself in service to the sick and wretched. Like Jesus of Nazareth, Francis refused to write off human suffering as punishment from God or karma or anything else that rationalized it and excused the healthy and comfortable from compassion (let along social justice which is a concept that lay beyond the time of Francis).

Spoto, however, is more than willing to extrapolate the way of Francis so it speaks more clearly to our time.

And here we come very close to the true meaning of holiness. It is, at its deepest level, a condition of spiritual integrity that always upsets public presumptions and encounters the selfishness and madness of power that strangle so much peace in the world. . . . .

Holiness, does not, we should stress, necessarily depend on fidelity to an institution, or on allegiance to a particular juridical tradition. The true mark of holiness is the character of a life that gives to others, that extends beyond the narrow frontiers of itself, its own comfort and concerns—a life that furthers the humanizing process. Whether one uses the specific vocabulary of religion or not, this is the core: living close to God—a habit of being that (at least according to the great Hebrew prophets of old and the insistent message of Jesus of Nazareth) is seen concretely in loving service, a hunger for peace and justice and an active longing for concord among nations, groups and individuals.

“Who are You, my dearest God? And what am I but Your useless servant?”

All of that interpretation arises from the life of Francis which he himself never regarded as successful. He failed in many of his most ardent aspirations and felt more keenly than his physical sufferings the pain of those failures. In prayer, Francis often asked this two-fold question: “Who are You, my dearest God? And what am I but Your useless servant?”

To our own time when Christianity is so popularly reduced to a quick fix for all sins (without the bother of specificity in confession or remorse) and salvation reduced to blessings now (too often the goodies of prosperity) and heaven later, Spoto enables Francis to speak to us humbly but strongly of a process of conversion that continues throughout life and of the pursuit of a holiness far different from personal purity with scorn for the sinful.

The Hebrew prophets provided fair signs of holiness: “Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. . . . Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God.” Jesus summed it up as love of God, made evident in love of neighbor—and the habit of forgiveness as the required standard of our love of God and of God’s embrace of us. By forgiveness we do not mean that something wicked is to be forgotten, much less that it is not so wicked after all; forgiveness means the refusal to seek vengeance, to wish or to wreak pain, suffering or death on the offending enemy. Godliness, in other words, is about peace in all its ramifications.

For our time when “evil” may be misunderstood as behavior or even identity that disgusts us and our traditional religious sensibilities, I suggest that “cease to do evil” is better understood biblically as ceasing to do harm and “learn to do good” as learning how to be helpful, healing, and restorative. The prophet calls the self-satisfied to stop harming and start helping the vulnerable; he does not call the outcast and suffering to become like the normal and well-off so they might then be acceptable.

Francis of Assisi represents the way of faith that is never popular. Down through the centuries and especially since the Constantinian imperialization of Christianity in the 4th Century, the regnant Christ who sits in judgment has been much preferred to the servant Jesus who rejects power and glory and refuses to dominate anyone. For me, this servant is the Jesus who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.