In the Italian city of Assisi there is a small church named San Damiano located halfway down the hill upon which the city is built. There, in the year 1205, the young Francis knelt in prayer before a large crucifix. Suddenly, he heard the voice of Christ speaking to him from the crucifix, calling to him three times: “Francis, go and repair my church, which you can see is all in ruins!” Startled by the words of Christ, Francis looked around and mistakenly thought Our Lord was referring to the building and not His Mystical Body. He came to understand soon enough.
In an interesting essay about St. Francis published in Church Life Journal, the writer Matthew Chominski points out that St. Francis simultaneously had intense reverence for the beauty of Creation and intense devotion to the crucified Christ. He rejoiced both in God’s handiwork revealed in the sun, the stars, fire and flowers, and the sores of his friends the lepers, which he kissed while changing their bandages. Chominski wonders how one who perceived the beauty of nature so clearly could see beauty also in things that seem so obviously horrible. This was, Francis himself says, the fruit of his conversion: “While I was in sin, it seemed very bitter to me to see lepers. And the Lord Himself led me among them and I had mercy upon them. And when I left them that which seemed bitter to me was changed to sweetness of soul and body; and afterward I lingered a little and left the world.” The conversion that began before the crucifix at San Damiano was what allowed this connoisseur of natural beauty, who referred to the sun and the moon as his brother and sister, to recognize it also in the leper, with whom he personally identified.
So, how should we understand beauty? There is, writes Chominski, a false kind of beauty that is deceptive. False beauty makes us selfish. It fills us with the greedy desire to possess and control. We see this in the seductive power of worldly pleasure and glory, which beckons us to seize it, but which ends up imprisoning and devouring those it has seduced. True beauty, however, draws us out of ourselves. The crucifix is an unsettling image of a dying man, pinioned to a cross. But that dying man is also God. Thus, the crucifix is transformed into the image of God’s self-emptying love for us, revealing the limit to which He would go to redeem His fallen creatures. The One who gives Himself out of love for us in such a surprising and unexpected way is also the One who gives us the beauty of the world that we inhabit and of which we are a part. Francis’ recognition of the absolute goodness of the Lord, who gives so generously and so recklessly in Creation and on the cross, filled Francis with the desire and confidence to imitate God’s reckless generosity. So closely conformed was Francis to the Lord whom he loved, that he even came to bear the wounds of Christ on his own body. St. Francis, the poor man of Assisi, dressed in rags, mysteriously marked with the stigmata, rejoicing in everyone and everything he met, thus became a living icon of Christ, revealing the passion that God has for Creation. This is the kind of beauty that makes St. Francis so compelling, and which should offer us some insight into the contemporary (and perennial) mission to rebuild the Church. St. Francis’ feast day is this Tuesday, October 4.