This month sees the feast of St Francis of Assisi (4th October) one of the patron saints of Europe, also claimed by environmentalists, and peace-makers, and of course the chosen name of the present Pope. I first visited Assisi in 1978 and have been countless times since. I have also been blessed in spending time in some of the other Franciscan shrines, not least La Verna – the place of his Stigmata.
One of the keys to understanding Francis is that he never really settles down into one way of ministry, or even one way of life. He certainly never experienced stability in the way that is seen as crucial to the Benedictine way of life. Even when he was dying he asked to be moved from one church to another, and then in his last hours to be moved outside to lie on the earth. Francis was always seeking the correct response to God’s call for that moment and situation.
He famously believed that his call from the Crucified Christ at St Damiano was to physically gather stone and wood and rebuild the dilapidated building. This did enable him to gather a few companions and brought a final divorce from his old way of life; then he disappeared with them high on to Mount Subasio seeking a hermit’s life lost in prayer and communion with God. It was here that he tested a vocation to a ministry of evangelism, of preaching repentance and the forgiveness of sins. This led him to a mixed life of retreat and mission, engagement and solitude.
Francis was always aware of the moment. This enabled him to respond the call of Christ with utter spontaneity. Francis’ absolute poverty enabled this total freedom. He was free to travel – even to the Middle East to approach the Sultan of Egypt during the crusades: free to respond to invitations to visit and to preach. He was always open to possibilities that emerged as a day unfolded. Hence there are so many stories of people he met ‘on the way.’’
Francis poses a huge question to us all. Are you sure that what you believed God called you to do in the past he is calling you to do now? Not all of us, of course, are St Francis, but the world does change around us and we too change in our abilities and the disposition of our life. The possibilities of someone in his thirties are not the same as those of someone in his sixties. Different situations require a different response.
One thing is certain. Francis was a man of profound prayer; his Stigmata were a sacrament of his open communion with the Lord. His depth of prayer enabled a living, moment by moment, responsiveness to Christ. Surely, this is what we all should seek? Francis teaches us that it is imperative to pare down our lives to live simply, not to be encumbered by too much stuff. He teaches us that that Christ who is the Word though whom all things were made is addressing us in every atom of creation. He also teaches us that there is no substitute for simply getting out and about in the world as it is in the sure knowledge that it is starving for Christ, who is our peace.