HAPPY FEAST DAY OF THE SERAPHIC FATHER, SAINT FRANCIS OF ASSISI! That is….happy EARLY Feast Day! I must publish my annual St. Francis Day post a bit earlier this year, because I will be out of town for a wedding on October 4th and will not have internet access. However, I wish you all a blessed and joyful feast day!
One of the perks of the Catholic faith is that we have been blessed by the examples of so many Saints who have gone before us! When I was a little girl, I devoured the stories of the Saints with the same excitement that children have when reading a fairy tale. As I grew older, I began to consider how I could incorporate the lives of these extraordinary men and women into my own. During times of trouble, the first thing that often comes to mind is how a particular Saint reacted to a similar situation. Thus, it is so important to remember that Saints were ordinary people who overcame difficult times and situations by showing extraordinary holiness- while experiencing normal human fears, temptations, and weaknesses.
Saint Francis is so well-loved by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, that we tend to focus on his halo and not on his humanity! However, Francis was an ordinary person who achieved extraordinary holiness simply by making trust in God the center of his life! At times, I struggle so much with truly putting all my trust in God….I’m a chronic worrier….and sometimes doubt my ability to ever attain such faith. However, my hope is restored when I consider St. Francis’ early years and realize that he and I aren’t all that different.
Francis was a talented, lively, and promising man who had resources to worldly success at his disposal. As a young man, Francis dreamed of becoming a wealthy and famous knight who would accomplish great things; his family and friends wholeheartedly encouraged this ambition. Similarly, so many people of my generation grew up with great ambitions that were continually flamed by our families, mentors, friends, educators, and overall culture. In my own case, I managed to shine during my high school and college years with the assumption that I would be a “success” once I entered “the real world.”
For Saint Francis, “the real world” turned out to be a war with the nearby town Perugia. Decked out in the finest military regalia and convinced that his ambition to become a knight would be fulfilled, Francis excitedly rode into battle. He soon discovered that war was not a glamorous adventure, but a very frightening tableau of human suffering….which became more apparent after he was taken as a prisoner. After his release, Francis returned to Assisi as a quieter, more contemplative young man. A children’s book recounts that Francis would roam the countryside and experienced “sadness” as he tried to figure out where his ambitions went wrong.
The shattering of youthful ideals and subsequent sadness that Francis experienced is not uncommon to young people of my generation. In fact, I just read a book called “The Quarterlife Crisis” (by Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 2001) that describes the sadness, anxiety, and confusion that twenty-somethings experience after graduating from college. After going through sixteen-plus years of academic life where expectations are clearly stated and we are encouraged to “follow your dreams,” we are shocked when we realize that post-college life is much more vague, difficult, unglamorous, and confusing than we expected. Worry and fear grows as we realize that our former ideas of what it means to be “successful” just don’t hold up anymore and we try to figure out our true calling in life. In my own case, I’ve realized since graduation that my former notions of “success” were a bit flawed and am still trying to figure out my life’s purpose. For many twenty-somethings, this discernment is a process of trial and error.
After spending some time in Assisi, Francis decided to give another try at being a soldier. Shortly after embarking on this second attempt, Francis came down very ill and once again returned to Assisi. During his illness, God spoke to Francis and gave him an idea as to the true meaning of success.
“Tell me Francis,” He asked. “Which is better? To serve the servant or the Lord?”
Francis answered, “To serve the Lord, of course.”
God responded by saying, “Then why make a master of the servant?”
“Why make a master of the servant?” I suppose that’s one of the best pieces of career advice that a twenty-something could receive. Even if a person has good ambitions, his or her efforts should be directed towards serving God.
But what if we don’t yet know what we are meant to do with our lives? Even after this revelation from God on his sickbed, Francis didn’t quite know how to carry out God’s will. He subsequently heard a voice from God telling him to “rebuild my Church.” So, Francis took some of his father’s money and started a kind of endowment fund to rebuild the crumbling church of San Damiano. After being mocked by the townspeople as a madman, imprisoned by his father, and brought before the local bishop, Francis eventually realized that God is ready and willing to take full care of us….as long as we open ourselves to trust in His providence.
As an act of perfect trust, Francis relinquished all his father’s possessions and recognized that he would be taken care of by “Our Father.” Now that he had given up any means of worldly livelihood, Francis didn’t really have any idea of what to do next. If I was in this position, I would be in a state of severe worry! However, Francis’ story points out that worrying about “what next?” is useless and unnecessary…..somehow God will take care of us, even if the odds are against us. It’s been my experience that the more desperate the situation, the more we realize how only God can give us what we truly need and desire…. we can’t base our happiness on material wealth, a job, fame, etc. As in Francis’ case, I guess the road to sainthood begins with a simple act of trust.
Even after this beautiful and dramatic renunciation of earthly goods, Francis still hadn’t figured out God’s overall plan for him, nor did he reach overnight recognition as a holy man. Some sources said that he roamed around the countryside for the next several years as a beggar and doing odd jobs. He continued rebuilding San Damiano while tending to a group of lepers. In summary, Francis simply lived his life day-to-day while performing simple and small acts of love. It was through these simple acts of love that Francis eventually attracted followers to his way of life. He never really planned to become the founder of one of the largest and most influential religious Orders in Church history….it just happened to turn out that way, one act of love at a time.
What lessons can we draw from this? In my own case, I should stop asking myself “how am I going to become a prominent and ‘successful’ Christian woman?” Instead, I should put all of my worries into Christ’s hands and concentrate on doing His will one day at a time. After all, as Francis and so many other Saints point out, true “success” boils down to fulfilling God’s will in our own unique situations. During these rough times that my generation and many others are experiencing, Francis teaches us that we will overcome the sorrow and confusion through trust in God and acts of love done in His name. As St. John of the Cross once noted, “All goods were given to me when I no longer sought them through self-love.”
May Holy Father Francis bless us this day and always. In closing, I will leave you with the well-known “Prayer of St. Francis.” While I know that many of you have already read or heard this reflection, it is a beautiful reminder that we can follow Francis’ example by simple, selfless acts of love:
Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.