My brothers, the Lord called me into the way of simplicity and humility to have me poor and foolish in this world . . . God will confound you by your own wisdom and learning, and, for all your fault-finding, bring you repentance whether you will or no.
No, these words of reproach were not leveled at a Dominican ensnared by intellectual pride. These are the words of St. Francis exhorting his own Franciscan brothers to the life of simple poverty for which he is so well known. Even coming from such a holy man, the exhortation to humiliating poverty and self-abasing foolishness is shocking. How does one heed the words of Francis without falling prey to an unchecked and misguided zeal? How was the poverty of Francis such a sure path to holiness? To answer these questions, we need to look at what caused St. Francis to live the way he did.
Born into a wealthy Italian family of standing, his early years were spent in fine living. After falling seriously ill, he heard God speak to him of the higher joys in life. Realizing how short his life could be, Francis distributed what wealth he had to the poor and dressed himself in little more than a patched tunic tied at the waist by a rope. He first answered God’s call to rebuild the church by restoring the local church of San Damiano near Assisi. It was here that he met his first followers. After his order was recognized in 1210, he and his friars traveled throughout Europe serving the poor and destitute. By the time of his death, St. Francis had thousands of men following him in the simple and poor way of the Friars Minor.
As extraordinary as his life was, one might still wonder why the poverty and simplicity of Francis caused such a commotion. After all, Francis was not the first religious enthusiast of the thirteenth century to run around penniless in tattered robes. What was it that gave Francis’s poverty the power to draw people to join his way of life? The poverty of St. Francis was powerfully attractive because it flowed from the depths of charity, which bound his life to God in a relationship of utter dependence. St. Francis knew God as the beginning and end of his existence. He rejoiced at being a creature of God and longed for others to embrace a relationship with their Creator as well.
The poverty of Francis was a sure road to holiness because it was an imitation of Christ’s poverty while on earth. Seen in this light, the life of St. Francis reflects the boundless generosity with which the Savior gave even his own life to save mankind from sin and death. So closely did Francis participate in the life of Christ that he came to bear the very wounds suffered by our Savior on the cross—the holy stigmata in his hands, side, and feet.
Before he died, Francis wrote the Canticle of the Sun, in which he praises all creatures for their reflection of the Creator. Today we praise St. Francis for reflecting the boundless love of the Savior who grants life eternal to those who follow him in poverty and humility. With our Franciscan brothers, we sing the Canticle of the Sun written by Holy Father Francis:
Praised be my Lord for those who pardon one another for His love’s sake, and who endure weakness and tribulation; blessed are they who peaceably endure, for by Thee, Most Highest, shall they be crowned . . . Blessed are they who are found walking by Thy most holy will, for the second death shall do them no harm. Praise ye and bless my Lord, and give thanks unto Him and serve Him with great humility!
Image: Cimabue, Saint Francis of Assisi