Lessons from the Life of St. Francis

Many fine histories exist on the life of St. Francis and I would not need to replicate them here. But on this Feast of St. Francis it might be significant for us to reflect on a few lessons from his life.

1.       On the possibility of radical conversion and the role of affliction and humiliation – St. Francis had lived and experienced the life of great wealth. The son of a successful cloth merchant, he enjoyed a very affluent easy life growing up and partook  of the permissiveness of the times. He was a natural leader and drew to himself a crowd of young people who spent their nights in wild parties. His biographer, Thomas of Celano, said of him that him that, “He attracted to himself a whole retinue of young people addicted to evil and accustomed to vice.”  He had visions of grandeur and became a knight. Perhaps the horrors of battle and a year as a prisoner of war began a gradual conversion in him. The Fourth Crusade was called in 1205  and Francis impulsively bought new armor and sallied forth. But perhaps his own anxiety, and more surely a vision, wherein God rebuked his manner of life,  led him to turn back. At home he was derided as a coward and suffered great wrath from his earthly father.

This crisis in his life led ultimately to his conversion, and a dramatic one at that. The Book of Psalms says, Before I was afflicted I strayed. But now I have kept your word, O Lord (Psalm 119:67).   We all know people whose conversion seems unlikely. But God may yet humble them and draw them to conversion. Further, we ought never underestimate the fact that affliction and humiliation may be a necessary component of conversion for many of us. At times we may feel as though God has abandoned us, or others we love. In fact he may be doing some very important work. Our greatest enemy is pride and our best friend is humility. Humility and affliction may be gifts in strange packages. Learn to trust in God’s ways, painful though they may be, sometimes. God may be drawing us, and those we love,  to deeper conversion.

2. On the freedom of poverty and simplicity – Francis and his early companions embraced a life of radical poverty. So severe was this poverty that some thought them mad and rebuked  their ways as beyond rational. St. Francis responded, If we had any possessions we should need weapons and laws to defend them.  One hagiographer says, Possessing something was the death of love for Francis. Also, Francis reasoned, what could you do to a man who owns nothing? You can’t starve a fasting man, you can’t steal from someone who has no money, you can’t ruin someone who hates prestige. They were truly free. [1] Not all of us may be able to embrace this radical poverty due to our obligations to others. But, more and more, we ought to experience a growing simplicity of life that frees us from the power of this world. Poverty and simplicity are powerful and fruitful gifts of God. Once again, they are gifts in strange packages. But, if we can learn to embrace them, we discover greater freedom.

3. On the Love of God’s Church and how reform is best accomplished – During St. Francis’ lifetime the Church was in need of reform. Greed, worldliness and scandal were problems among clergy and laity as well. Heresies were abundant. Some, noting sin in the Church have chosen to hate the Church and leave her. But others, like Francis, hear the call of God,  who never ceases to love His Church, and they, themselves, intensify their love for the Church and work for her reform. In a vision,  St. Francis sensed the call from God: “Francis, Repair my Church.” Gradually he deepened his understanding of the Lord’s call and began that reform by seeing first to his very own life.

It is possible for critics of the Church to excoriate the sins of others, but not see their own. Francis began in the vineyard of his own life and then went forth gently preaching conversion by personal example to his neighbors. The movement for reform spread. It was grassroots, it was personal. True reform begins with me. Simply denouncing the sins of others or the Church, real though these sins may be, seldom has lasting effect. The best reform  starts with personal conversion. Personal conversion spreads to others, and reform is underway. Within 10 years there were over 5,000 men in Francis’ community and the Poor Clares were also well underway. It works. If I let God set me on fire, then I can spread that fire.

4. On unity with all creation and the gift of wonder and awe -St. Francis thought of nature, all God’s creation, as part of his brotherhood. In some sense, the sparrow was as much his brother as the Pope.

There is a radical tendency today, in some of the environmental movement,  that sees man as the enemy of the natural world, rather than an integral part of it. We can tend to see ourselves as outsiders of the natural world, rather than partakers and members of it. But for St. Francis there was brotherhood. And in brotherhood there are legitimate needs we supply one another. Nature supplies us and we in turn help to perfect nature. We have done this in our best moments by helping to increase the yield of our fields and bring far greater bounty to the earth by agriculture and animal husbandry. We also seek to master disease and push back the destructive boundaries of what is unruly in nature, such as infestations and the like. It is true we have often transgressed by unnecessary pollution and the like. But in the end we are not the enemies of nature, we are companions and brethren to the natural world.

St. Francis can help us to find this balance. He surely exhibited a sense of gratitude for God’s creation and a deep wonder and awe at all that God has given. We too ought to develop a deep appreciation for the beauty of God’s work and reverence our very selves as a part of that creation.  In the first video below is a meditation based on the poem and prayer of St. Francis known as the Canticle of the Sun, his meditation on the magnificence of creation.

5. On the Need to Evangelize the Muslim World – We may think that the struggle with the Muslim world is new. It is not. In his life, St Francis decided to go to Syria to convert the Moslems while the Fifth Crusade was being fought. In the middle of a battle, Francis decided to do the simplest thing and go straight to the sultan to make peace. He and his companion were captured and  Francis was taken to the sultan, Melek-el-Kamel. Francis challenged the Muslim scholars to a test of true religion by fire; but they refused. Francis proposed to enter the fire first, under the condition that if he left the fire unharmed, the sultan would have to recognize Christ as true God. The offer was turned down but the sultan was so impressed that he allowed Francis to preach to his subjects. Though Francis did not succeed in converting the sultan, the last words of the sultan to Francis of Assisi were, Pray for me that God may deign to reveal to me that law and faith which is most pleasing to him.  This work of Francis  and his attempted rapprochement with the Muslim world had far-reaching consequences, long past his own death, since after the fall of the Crusader Kingdom,  it would be the Franciscans, of all Catholics, who would be allowed to stay on in the Holy Land and be recognized as “Custodians of the Holy Land” on behalf of Christianity. [2]

In times like these, when extremist forms of Islam have emerged, we need, more than ever to have the courage of St. Francis to engage the Islamic world and seek to bring them to Christ. It may be difficult work and successes may be few at this stage. But God calls us to be faithful, not successful. Ultimate success is up to God. We who are Catholics have a special role in this evangelization since the Muslim world shares with us a respect for Mary, Mother of Jesus our Lord. More on that in a future post.

This first video is set to the Music “All Creatures of Our God and King.” This hymn is based closely on the poem by St. Francis Canticum Fratris Solis (Canticle of Brother Sun) :


This second video is a very charming video of a man who has taught his dog to pray:

6 Replies to “Lessons from the Life of St. Francis”

  1. I’ll be sharing these with my family. Loved the second video especially. My daughter has been trying to teach our dog to pray … this will inspire her to continue her efforts. We love St. Francis and last Friday had a blessing of the pets at school last Friday.

  2. Simply amazing, this is why I come to New Advent; I pick up things or biographies in this case that I never thought existed. Thank you, Msgr. Charles Pope for your time and effort for this article.

  3. You would have been pleased to see our Franciscan Fraternity yesterday peacefully and prayerfully joining in others in a Life Chain in downtown Rochester, NH. I know St Francis was smiling down on us. A great way to celebrate Sanctity of Life Sunday on the vigil of Francis’ feast day.

  4. My parish has a Blessing of the Animals, however Louis-cat disapproves of being placed in his carrier. Last time I took him he alternated between glaring balefully upon the proceedings, and meowing his indignance at his confinement.

  5. I love this video – shows us the beauty within God’s creatures and that they too are in this world to serve our Lord. This is why I respect all of God’s creatures, big and small. We have a statue of St Francis in our garden and he reminds me everyday of his love and respect for God’s creatures.

  6. I just this week finished the book THE SAINT AND THE SULTAN. Some of what you wrote does not agree with the research on Francis. It was the Sultan of Egypt that Francis visited. There is some revision of Francis’s lfe by St. Bonaventure when the Order wanted a biography better than what Celano had written, and did some revising. I suggest this book as it is recent, 2009, and is extremely interesting and makes Francis a true son of Jesus.

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