Today is the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. As hands down one of the most popular, if not the most popular saint of all time, St. Francis enjoys a kind of universally recognized goodness from all corners. This is in part due to the fact that many are ignorant of him, misappropriate him, and lie about him. A 2006 movie on St. Francis has him decrying his merchant father’s labor violations. In one scene, while imprisoned for stealing his father’s things, Francis is talking to a fellow inmate who sneaked a vernacular Bible into prison – because of course as we all know the evil Roman Church imprisoned people for translating Bibles. Anyway, the inmate shares the Bible with Francis who reads the Gospels “for the first time.” A 2007 film bearing the St. Francis’ name is supposedly pornographic. I haven’t seen it, but the cover is suggestive to say the least.
Some of St. Francis’ popularity is due to his being seen as the Christian version of Pan the god of the woods, that mischievous, ever-youthful god that pretty much fulfills every undergrad dream of being able to party all night with no repercussions. Many turn the Italian saint into little more than a pagan merely dampened by the waters of baptism. He’s a tree hugger, a vegetarian, an eco-radical, and probably a follower of Ché only Francis sweetly wears a cross around his neck. He’s the socialist with a Beatles’ haircut – rarely is he depicted with the tonsure. He’s a poet who in the 60’s would have been dropping acid with the best of them. But St. Francis understood better than anyone that the ancient and dark gods of merriment and base living lead only to the liar who is quick to quit the scene when the repercussions of irresponsible living do come.
If we must have an analogy for St. Francis, let’s call him the new troubadour who’s songs told of the deepest love, the earth-shattering love for which every young heart yearns , that love that drives a man to the grandest achievements and the most vulnerable risks, a love that can only be found in love for Christ Jesus and in denying ones’ self for His sake. Here is the great romance in Francis’ life. It is not with St. Clare – as some renditions of his life would make it. It is with Our Lord.But St. Francis’ love was not the closed, myopic and adolescent love of the Twilight variety. His love for Christ made him sacrifice for the Church, Christ’s bride. It was St. Francis, remember, who was to rebuild the Church.
This diminutive Italian whom we celebrate today gave himself up for the Bride-Church, forgoing temptations of lust by, on one occasion, thrusting himself into a bush of thorns. Men these days find it difficult to just turn off the computer. Francis ate sparingly. This was not out of respect for the animals around him. He didn’t fear violating their animal rights. He fasted for the chance to draw himself closer to the suffering Christ on the cross. Few seem to remember that Francis had attempted to go off to war, to fight in the Crusades before having to return home, or that he met with the Sultan in order to convert him or die trying. Apart from the questions of the just war, St. Francis was not the modern man or the ancient Pan. He was a zealot in all the terribly non-tolerant and dogmatic overtones that zealotry involves. St. Francis was a stigmatist, mystically bearing the very signs of that crucifixion on his own body. This is how much he loved Christ…even unto death to self.
This is, of course, why we turn to St. Francis’ example, and what an example St. Francis gives us in this time. Consider what G.K. Chesterton had to say about St. Francis in his biography of the saint:
What had happened to the human imagination, as a whole, was that the whole world was colored by dangerous and rapidly deteriorating passions; by natural passions becoming unnatural passions. Thus the effect of treating sex as only one innocent natural thing was that every other innocent natural thing became soaked and sodden with sex. For sex cannot be admitted to a mere equality among elementary emotions or experiences like eating and sleeping. The moment sex ceases to be a servant it becomes a tyrant. There is something dangerous and disproportionate in its place in human nature, for whatever reason; and it does really need a special purification and dedication. The modern talk about sex being free like any other sense, about the body being beautiful like any tree or flower, is either a description of the Garden of Eden or a piece of thoroughly bad psychology, of which the world grew weary two thousand years ago.
Sex is a sacred thing, which ought to be respected for what it is. It is sacred, though, not because of its carnal, baser elements. This is what makes it sacred to the corner-store Shivas and the pimps of Hollywood, in part because they can make money off of it. It is sacred because of the unique beauty of the human person. It is sacred because of the fundamental dignity of the human person made in the image and likeness of God. St. Francis knew this and lived it in so far a superior a fashion that centuries after his death we still celebrate his example of pious love for life, a love that translated into the embrace of a leaper.
So today I say fie on Don Juan, on the leading men of the silver screen and on the peddlers of pornography. Today celebrate St. Francis as the greatest lover of all time, and know that he is so because of his willingness to become like unto Christ.