Today, 4 October, is the feast of Saint Francis.
Many people are aware that Francis was able to speak with animals. Many people associate him with nature and place a statue of him in their garden. I have one in my back yard.
But he is far more than just an animal lover, or a friend of nature. His example of showing love through radical poverty for the sake of the Gospel was… radical.
Francis came from a wealthy family and, in what is common to many saints, initially lived a life of selfishness. Eventually he rejected that life as he went through a conversion. He took literally the words of Jesus to the rich young man to sell all of his possessions and follow Christ. Francis owned nothing and his followers owned nothing, not even the clothes that they wore. They really would give away the shirt off their back if they came across someone in dire need.
The radical poverty and severe discipline of the Franciscans is not for everyone. But for those who are called by God in this manner and choose to answer, it is a beautiful expression of love. Especially when coupled with the joy that is typical of Franciscans. Francis was affable and full of cheer. Even when imprisoned after battle as a youth while still living a life of selfishness, he was always in high spirits. Franciscans strive to do the same.
It was their good cheer even in the face of ridicule from those who first heard their preaching that brought about a change of heart in their listeners. The initial greetings of insults and mockery soon changed to smiles and friendliness when people noticed that no matter how poorly they were treated, these men were still filled with joy. How can one be full of joy without material possessions? How can one be filled with joy when clothed with rags, constantly fasting, and looked down upon by all others in the community? Maybe I ought to listen to what they say. Maybe it’s worthwhile after all.
When Francis went to Egypt during the Fifth Crusade to preach to the Muslims, he audaciously planned to seek an audience with the Sultan to preach to him directly. As it happened, he and his companion were captured and brought before the Sultan himself. The Sultan did not convert at that time, although according to pious legend he did convert on his deathbed because the memory of that meeting with Francis stayed with him. It’s not known exactly what they talked about as neither kept any record of the meeting; one can presume that Francis shared the Gospel and the Sultan shared the beliefs of his people but we simply do not know. Francis is reported to have been disappointed after the meeting, likely because the Sultan was open to the Gospel but did not convert.
What we do know is the Sultan, against the expectations of both the Muslims and the Crusaders, allowed Francis and his companion to go unharmed.
When the Gospel is truly believed, when it is lived out, when it is shared not with intellectual detachment but with joy, people notice. People remember. And hearts are often changed. Not necessarily immediately, but in time.
I try to do the same. Despite its ups and downs, life really is a glorious thing. People really are wonderful. God’s creation really is good. Even in pain and hardship and suffering, life is beautiful.
And, incidentally, the Italian movie Life is Beautiful is a great movie. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.