It is early October and summer is sliding into autumn with colder temperatures borne on the wind, hinting of winter.
September in my life has been a time of beginnings, the start of the new term, the birth of my son, even the victory of Saint Michael over Lucifer. The long days of summer have ended, the heat broken with the flapping of angels’ wings, blowing the soon-to-turn leaves. Indeed, some of the leaves here are already burnt sienna, that crayon color I often selected from the little yellow box on the dining table. And, in church, having flown with angels, we begin October with the curiously homely beggar from Assisi, Francis Bernadone.
I was considering Francis in church this morning and how the God spoke to him through the crucifix in the crumbling chapel of San Damiano outside of Assisi, and how he obeyed. “Repair my house,” he said, and Francis thought he meant the chapel. He gathered stones to help the old priest rebuild. The crucifix in San Damiano spoke to him, and now I looked up to the crucifix in Saint Peter’s. In a way God spoke through the crucifix every Sunday.
As I received the Host this morning, a friend, rising from the altar rail at the opposite end, tripped. She held a baby, and the two fell gently onto the red carpet. There was a rustle of sudden movement and a collective gasp and a doctor in the congregation soon helped her up; her pride was hurt more than her bones. The startled but unhurt baby was passed to comforting arms. I gazed at the white Host in the palm of my hand, then to the crucifix above the altar, slightly stunned. I wondered if Saint Francis would suddenly appear and help us out.
Thirteenth-century Francis (1181-1226) is a favorite of today, but his humility and obedience are not celebrated. True, he cared for the poor and the sick, a model of social charity. He wandered the paths of Italy, homeless, begging his room and food, an icon of earthy simplicity and celebration of nature, ecology, animals and birds. But his life was hard, full of sacrificial giving, much like Christ, for Christ wandered the countryside, preaching and healing.
We have many primary sources for the life of Francis, many contemporary accounts, so the tales surrounding him have a certain validity. But there was nothing sentimental about this rough little man of love. He kissed a leper. He spoke to a hungry wolf. Nearly blind, he underwent eye surgery with no anesthetic.
What seems to be missing in contemporary stories of this saint is his obedience and devotion to the Church. He sought permission from his superiors, and his local bishop gave him the Porziuncola chapel-hut in the valley below Assisi to use for prayer. As others joined him in this life of poverty, he petitioned the Pope to make his order official and was rejected. Finally, after dreaming Francis was literally supporting the Church, keeping it from falling down with outstretched hands, the Pope called him back and created the Order of Friars Minor.
Saint Francis was, to be sure, a correction to the decadent Church of the High Middle Ages. Success and wealth had corrupted the institution over time, as they often do with man’s endeavors, and Francis became a challenge, a new way. But his humility and obedience to the Church never wavered. He saw himself as unworthy to become a priest for the priest offered the great sacrifice of the Mass. Yet he fully lived the sacrament of spirit and flesh, as the love of God worked through his body to heal the hurting, to love the despairing. Finally, while he would not, could not, celebrate the Eucharist, he asked for the wounds of Christ, the stigmata, in his hands, his feet and his side so that he could love the better. Christ appeared to him as an angel, in the center of the cross, during this season of Michaelmas, on a mountain in Tuscany outside of Florence called La Verna. He granted Francis his request.
Stigmata continue to bleed, and Francis died within two years, in his forties. His friends carried him on a pallet, his hands and feet wrapped. In a sense, Christ entered his body in a mysterious way, giving all of us on earth another dramatic and cosmic sign of God’s love for us.
We all bleed in a sense, for life is a messy thing, as we bump against one another, reach out to one another, make our troubled way through time. But as we walk these rocky paths, Francis reminds us that God is with us, suffering with each minute, and celebrating each hour of our life. He is with us through the Church, Francis tells us, through the Eucharist, through the Body and the Blood of Christ.
He was with us this morning as my friend stumbled and fell, and he was with the child who landed softly. He was with all of us as we knelt at that rail, partaking of His presence in the bread and the wine. He wove us together with his love, this unique parish family, his suffering, loving, and glorified body.