Saint Francis of Assisi: Icon of God’s Love for Our Troubled Times
Ah, life’s ironies! As it turns out, many of those who are against abortion (quite a few of whom are President Trump’s supporters) are making excuses for Trump’s decision to accept therapies derived from aborted fetal tissue as a (so-called) “cure” for COVID-19; and yet, many of those in favor of abortion (who, more often than not, are the president’s opponents) are upset that Trump owes his (apparent) “rapid recovery” from COVID-19 to therapies they would otherwise welcome, or even celebrate, if used to help others.
In the meantime, God, who “is no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34), and for whom all events manifest the sovereignty of his providence, judges all hearts, using the events of the history we have made to teach us how far we have fallen short of his love. If only we would listen to his teachings within us.
This, I think, may be why the Lord (through Pope Francis, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, and so many others) seems to be calling special attention to the teaching of St. Francis today. Il Poverello (“the little poor one,” as St. Francis is known in Franciscan tradition) is not only a master teacher when it comes to issues related to racism, violence, interreligious rivalry, and intolerance, as well as poverty and economic injustice; he is also, as the Catholic patron saint of animals and ecology, a guide for all believers during our worldwide environmental collapse, and the COVID-19 pandemic that is its most recent manifestation.
Through St. Francis, Christ is enjoining us now—as he once did on the open fields and dusty roads of Galilee and Judea—to embrace “the things that make for [our] peace” (Luke 19:42). And, just as was the case then, the question now is whether this generation will meet Christ’s message with stubborn rejection or with a willingness to accept a hard teaching. Will the Lord say of us, as he said to his compatriots, “But now [these things] are hidden from your eyes” (Luke 19:42)? And will an even worse destruction than was visited upon the Jerusalem temple and the land of Israel a scant 40 years after Christ uttered his famous warning fall upon us and our children’s generation?
Why, in light of God’s innumerable mercies, do we remain such an obstinate and “stiff-necked” people?
St. Francis shows us the way: He recognizes that before we correct others’ sins, we must correct our own (cf. Matthew 7:1-5). Once the way becomes clear to him—once he discerns the voice of Christ crucified, of the God who is Love Incarnate, manifesting itself to him inwardly through the form of the San Damiano Crucifix—he immediately embraces the life of penance (metanoia) and gospel simplicity. He becomes the solution to the world’s (and his own) problems by clinging to the evangelical life with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength (cf. Mark 12:30). He even travels to Egypt to meet with Al-Kamil, the Sultan of Damietta, in a singlehanded effort to broker an armistice between the Christian legions and the forces of Islam. And while he fails in the short run (though not without earning the sultan’s respect and admiration), his efforts are not in vain.
At least, some have hypothesized that the Crusades were cut short (on an order of decades or even centuries) by the very fact of so many thousands of Europeans joining St. Francis’ first, second, and third orders (respectively, mendicant friars, cloistered nuns, and mostly secular laity), and thereby vowing to live lives devoted to pacifism. Not only within those associations, but also, by virtue of their example, throughout Europe, the passion for making war on the “enemies of Christendom” progressively waned.
In any event, as a “reward” for (or rather, confirmation of) his faithfulness, near the end of St. Francis’ earthly journey, Christ appeared to him in the form of a crucified, burning seraph—in the form, that is, of the highest order of celestial spirits, living symbols of “the ever-purifying fire of divine love.” It was then that St. Francis was marked with the stigmata—the first person in history known to have received these signs of Christ’s passion. Thus Il Poverello was transfigured into a living icon of Christ crucified. To behold the saint was to see the very stamp of the God who is Love, impressed anew in human flesh.
St. Francis is in many ways a figure who stands for us in the space between separated Christian traditions, very much like St. Isaac of Nineveh, because he exhibited precisely those Christian—or, better, Christ-like—virtues that believers in all traditions seek to cultivate and embody. His example is as much a gift to the Orthodox as it is to Catholics, as many Orthodox thinkers have recognized in the past. And, at this moment, he is a figure of special significance, one who speaks to all the crises of our time with extraordinary relevance, power, and beauty.
I think it would be wise for all of us to examine the life of the Little Poor Man of Assisi—again or for the very first time—and ask ourselves what message the Lord has for each of us, and for all of us collectively, in our lives. St. Francis prayed that he might always be “an instrument of [Christ’s] peace.” As he was such an instrument on earth, he’s even more powerfully such an instrument in and from heaven. Let’s open ourselves, then, to God’s peace (Heb., shalom) in our lives with childlike humility and wonder (cf. Matthew 18:3), after the example of St. Francis.
Peace Prayer of Saint Francis
Lord, make me an instrument of your 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;
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.
Alfred D. Turnipseed is an African American Orthodox Christian whose primary avocation is religious education. A beloved brother, uncle, and father to one terrific cat, he lives in South Bend, Indiana.