“Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”
These are the famous words of Saint Francis of Assisi. Unfortunately, he never said them.
Saint Francis, arguably the church’s most famous saint, is also its most misunderstood. He is embraced by some as a vaguely pantheist animal lover, and appreciated by others as a completely non-threatening hippy Jesus-follower who liked to hang around bird baths. But both of these miss by a wide margin who Francis really was.
Francis was born into a well-to-do cloth merchant’s family in Assisi, Italy in 1182. Dancing and drinking and generally carousing into the wee hours of the morning, in his younger days Francis was famous for being the city’s most enthusiastic party goer. He was a respected citizen of Assisi, and when the city went to war against neighbouring Perugia, Francis enthusiastically enlisted. But his first day of battle did not bode well for him. He was captured, and taken as a prisoner of war. For over a year, Francis rotted away in a dank cell, breathing in sickness and disease.
Eventually his family ransomed him and brought him home. There he would remain for another year, recovering from his illness. Slowly he recovered, but he would never again be completely whole and healthy, and sickness would return to him from time to time for the rest of his days.
The fourth Crusade was set to begin, and Francis insisted he was well enough to fight. He set out to join a company of men in southern Italy. He was only a day’s journey from Assisi, however, when he turned back. The people of Assisi whispered of supposed visions from God which had cut short his journey south. Most began to conclude that his imprisonment and sickness had taken more than his health: it had also taken his mind! To his father’s consternation, he no longer attended the parties over which he had once been crowned king. Instead he spent his days riding the plains beneath the town, and was even known to visit the leper hospice. He stopped wearing the trendy clothing so readily available to him, and began to wear a field worker’s robe. The people’s suspicions about his mental health were confirmed when he began to talk of hearing Jesus speak to him in the ruins of old San Damiano chapel. He said that Jesus had told him to rebuild his church.
Francis had taken this quite literally, and set out to rebuild the ruined walls of the house of worship. And, as any good young son on a mission from God would do, he began by selling his father’s stuff. His father became so enraged that he actually locked him in a tiny stone closet for several days, eventually dragging Francis before the bishop, demanding justice. This he received in a form he never could have imagined. His son returned to him every cent he had taken, and with the money he returned his clothes, and his sonship. Francis stood naked, declaring that from that day forward, his Father in Heaven would be enough.
Francis would spend the rest of his life discovering the depths of that relationship with his Father, of learning simple trust in His providence. From this place of profound confidence in the immense Love of his Heavenly Father, Francis began a revolution.
Soon some of his closest, formerly party-going friends, began to join him in his simple life of poverty and service to the lowest and the forgotten. The movement continued to grow, eventually inspiring thousands to embrace a life of poverty and simplicity. They spent their days becoming one with lepers and beggars, serving them, and creating friendship.
It’s interesting that so often Francis is seen with little sparrows on his shoulders. Sparrows are small, and often go unnoticed when compared with lovely little hummingbirds or soaring eagles. They are dressed plainly in brown feathers, and receive their sustenance, quite literally, off the crumbs from our table. They do not reap or sow, but their Father in Heaven knows their needs, and sends them our leftover donuts and Big Mac buns. For this reason they have come to represent the poor, and whenever you see an image of Francis with a sparrow on his finger, it’s saying less about his communion with animals than it is about his communion with the lowly. It speaks of his humility.
And here, perhaps, is where that non-quote from Francis comes. The closest actual quote to something like that famous one goes something like this: “It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our preaching is our walking.” You see, Francis actually spent quite a lot of time preaching. In fact, if he couldn’t find people to preach to, he preached to the birds, exhorting them to praise their Father in Heaven. (They liked very much to hear him preach. He was one of them.)
What made Francis’s preaching so unique, however, was the authority by which he spoke. It’s one thing for a wealthy man to tell you to live simply and trust your Father, but quite another for a poor man to do so. Francis, in his poverty, experienced the Love of his Heavenly Father in such profundity that everything in his life, from his walking and his serving to his preaching, flowed from that deep well of trust.
Francis, the former party goer and respected soldier, became a bearded beggar. He traded the wealth of his earthly father for the riches of his Heavenly Father. The Gospel was not for him merely a matter of words, but of trust, of simplicity, and deep joy.
Truly, he preached the Gospel at all times. May we trust our Father enough to do the same.