This Monday, October 4, is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi (1881-1226). St. Francis is one of the most beloved saints in the Christian tradition, especially among the people of his native Italy. An Italian friend of mine once joked that Italians love St. Francis best, then comes St. Joseph, then Padre Pio, then Jesus! St. Francis captured the imagination of the people of his time, with his radical poverty, his love for creation, and his infectious devotion to the sacred humanity of Christ.
There are many books about St. Francis. I particularly like the one by the English writer G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton’s style takes some getting used to, but he has the ability to instill in the reader a new child-like sense of wonder at the world that we take for granted. In the chapter of his book entitled, “Le Jongleur de Dieu,” Chesterton refers to St. Francis as “God’s minstrel.” In the Middle Ages, a minstrel sought to delight the royal court through song, acrobatics, and playing the fool. By nature, St. Francis as a young man desired the admiration of others, and did not like to be considered a fool. It pained him to be thought a failed soldier for his disastrous military career, or to be thought a thief for having given money from his father’s business to the beggars of Assisi. But somehow his humiliations were touched by God’s grace, and in them he discovered happiness and the path to holiness. Chesterton describes the change in St. Francis as being like a man who digs a tunnel through the earth – at some point during his descent, he mysteriously begins to ascend. It is a strange sort of revolution, a turning around, that is at the heart of conversion.
Through his conversion, Chesterton explains, St. Francis saw the world from a new perspective. He saw the world upside-down. From that vantage, all the great things of the world, that seemed fixed and unmovable, suddenly appeared to be dangling precariously from above, in danger of falling into nothingness save for the goodness of God. The world is by nature dependent, a word that literally means “hanging down.” This is, Chesterton argues, “the fundamental fact which we cover up, as with curtains, with the illusion of ordinary life.” The curtains pulled back, and the “ordinary” set aside, St. Francis’ mystical vision of the infinite debt that creation owes to our Creator filled his heart with joy and gratitude. For he knew that God creates because God loves. Having learned humility through his conversion, St. Francis embraced the reality of total dependence. He knew that he was nothing without the Lord, and so his response was to make his life a love song to his Creator. Psalm 19 tells us: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims His handiwork.” This is how St. Francis understood all of Creation in relation to God. Ascetic though he was, undergoing many fasts and penances, St. Francis enjoyed Creation perhaps more than any man who ever lived. He understood, as all saints do, that its quality as gift imbues all of Creation with significance, and delights Him upon Whom we depend for all things.