Feast of Francis of Assisi
1 Oct 2017
So it turns out that Francis of Assisi didn’t actually write the “Prayer of Saint Francis.”
The prayer that begins, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace…” did not appear anywhere until shortly before World War I. At one point it was circulated on a prayer card with St. Francis on the front of it, and so it quickly grew to be associated with the saint. There’s a saying very similar to this prayer, collected from one of Francis’s close companions, Giles of Assisi:
Blessed is he who loves and does not therefore desire to be loved;
Blessed is he who fears and does not therefore desire to be feared;
Blessed is he who serves and does not therefore desire to be served;
Blessed is he who behaves well toward others and does not desire that others behave well toward him;
And because these are great things, the foolish do not rise to them.
(I checked Twitter to see if that would fit in 140 characters…alas, it doesn’t. But if you happen to be one of those whom Twitter has given the new experimental double-character limit, you’re in luck. It’s 233 characters and you can even fit in the author’s name. I’m just saying, if you happen to have this privilege, here’s an opportunity to use it for good.)
(As our Presiding Bishop likes to say, Oh, I’m gonna get in trouble now.)
But the Peace Prayer became popular for good reasons — it’s one of those prayers that, in Kathleen Norris’s words, is not asking for what we think we want, but asking to be changed in ways we can’t imagine. And that is very true to the spirit of Francis of Assisi.
Francis started out a lot like us. He was born with a lot of privilege, a lot of wealth. This was in the century before Dante wrote the Divine Comedy, a time when Italian cities were also states. These city-states often quarreled and had wars, formed leagues with other cities, and then re-formed them when new conflicts arose. You could be exiled from your home on pain of death, you and your children, and would have to find sanctuary in a friendly city. That’s what happened to Dante — he was exiled from Florence because of a political feud, and never got to come home. And all this was taking place in a relatively small geographical space, among people who were often cousins of those they were warring against. So imagine Francis against this background, who started life as a rich young man, riding off to battle with other cocky young men — imagine him as the church knows him, going on foot from city to city, preaching a Gospel of passionate joy. Throwing in his lot with the poorest of the poor, without reservation, without holding anything in his soul back.
Francis went from being a cog in the machine of war, to being a holy instrument of peace.
He liked to tell the story of the spiritual crisis that led to this change, and some of it has been written down for us. He joined poor people in their begging. He visited lepers, and touched the people whom no one would touch. On purpose, he went among people that his family and neighbors despised, and not only served them but did his best to conform his identity to theirs. He emptied out not only the purse of his money, but the purse of his heritage as well.
This conflict came to a head when he visited the church of San Damiano, and had a vision of Jesus saying to him: “Francis, Francis, go and repair my house, which as you can see is falling apart.” At first Francis took this to mean that he should repair the church building he was in. So he sold some of his father’s stock of fine cloth and donated the money to the priest of that church.
His father was furious. He threatened Francis, and beat him, and dragged him into court, where, the story goes, Francis relinquished all his inheritance down to the clothes on his back and walked out of there stark naked.
People asked Francis, “Why are you doing this? What is more important than your family, your friends, your position in society, your security?” (No one seemed to ask Pietro, “Why is a church donation more important than your son?”) “Why, Francis?” people asked. “What are you doing all this for?”
And Francis answered, “For the love of Lady Poverty.”
Now, I really want to dig in here to what Poverty means. Poverty is not pleasant: not even if you do it on purpose. It hurts. It could kill you. Francis was not in love with Lady Poverty because he was just so spiritual that all the pain and cold and hunger and distaste and dirt and shabbiness and unsavoriness was magically siphoned right out of the experience. It wasn’t.
We’re not talking about Poverty as a spiritual experience, though Francis certainly had them. We’re talking about Poverty as vulnerability. Thanks to Fr. Evan, we’ve heard a little bit about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — that human motivation is driven by a pyramid of needs, with food, water, shelter, and warmth at the base of the pyramid, up through safety, relationships in which you belong, accomplishments, to self-realization — an understanding of yourself as a real person rooted in reality.
Francis took that pyramid, made an hourglass of it, and turned it upside down, to pour out again until it was empty. And people found that threatening. For good reason.
What Francis was saying to his peers was this: You see these people? These people who have nothing to eat unless they beg it at your door, to whom you yell, “Get a job!” — these people who have diseases they didn’t ask for, to whom you say, “Well, you must not be living right.” — these people who don’t have two coins to rub together, or a home, or even so much as a cloak to keep warm? These people are above me.
Which means they’re above you, too.
That is bound to put cracks in people’s mountain of security.
In the first reading for this feast, we hear from Jeremiah, who accuses his own contemporaries that live in comfort: Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice. Who makes his neighbors work for nothing, and does not give them their wages. Who says, “I will build myself a beautiful house, the best house, the tallest house, the classiest, the most beautifully-decorated house. I come from genetically superior people.”
And Jeremiah says, “Oh really? Did your father treat people right? Did he listen to people who asked for his understanding, and use his privileges to assist folks in need? Because that’s the only heritage worth having.”
Holy Francis is here to tell us that God doesn’t care how far up the pyramid you’ve gotten. Your vulnerability is your value, and your status is how you treat other people.
This is important! Because I have to tell you, I have experienced involuntary poverty. I have been ill. I have been lonely. And every time I have experienced those very real destitutions, I have thought to myself: There must be something wrong with me, for it to be this way. The worship of domination has been so ground into us, generation after generation, that we think vulnerability is sin. Not only that: we seem to think that there is no real sin but vulnerability.
So as a society we insult people who have been hurt. We look for excuses not to help people who have been sick. We tell ourselves that someone who speaks of injustice must somehow really be the one to blame. In the eyes of the world, people who suffer are self-evidently sinful.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ sets people free from that law of sin and death.
Just imagine how it would be, if you didn’t feel compelled to be cruel to yourself. Listen to the words of Jesus. “Come to me,” our Lord says, “you who are weary and weighed down, and I will give you rest. Take my burden instead, and find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Imagine Jesus saying that to you. Imagine Jesus saying that to someone you don’t approve of. Imagine relief from that struggle for domination coming to people one by one: imagine them noticing it, breathing it in. Imagine them understanding their vulnerability as a badge of honor. Imagine them bowing in grace and courtesy to other vulnerable people. Imagine them dropping that urge to get revenge in any way they can.
We need the Gospel of Jesus Christ, dear friends. We need it desperately.
Because once we’ve been set free from that law of domination at all costs, we really are free to look around and make friends with reality. We can see how we are connected to everything and everything is connected to us. Danger and unpleasantness lose their bloat of significance. Fire and hail, snow and fog, stars and mountains and seas, all of these are our cousins in God’s reality. Old and young, time past and time future: all of it is connected: all of it is kin to us. Everyone’s life and identity matters, so it can’t take anything away from us to acknowledge someone else.
We come to understand that hoarding resources and hoarding respect is evidence of sin, not the vulnerability that asks for those courtesies. Free citizens of the kingdom of God don’t need to hoard anything.
Now, all this is pretty to think and easy to say. But I’ve been asking myself this question lately, and I invite you to ask it too. If I really believed that was true…what would I do? If I really believed that my vulnerability was my badge of honor in God’s eyes, what would I say? If I really believed that my identity is not measured by how secure I can make myself, what would I give? If I really trusted that at any moment I could carry the light yoke of Jesus instead of the heavy one I wake up with, how would I act?
What would it look like for me to follow Holy Francis’s example, and rebuild the house of God? Not to compete with kings, but to build up what was broken down? Not to be a cog in a machine of domination, but an instrument of God’s peace? What would I do?
What would you do?