St. Francis of Assisi

A sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden

Sunday, October 4, 2015

I am very lucky – as I’m sure many of you are as well – to have visited some extraordinary places around the world.  I have been able to travel extensively in Europe and one of the highlights for me was going on tour with Durham University Chamber Choir to Northern Italy back in the 1990s. We saw some amazing sights and did some amazing things. For instance, not only did we get to visit St Mark’s Cathedral in Venice, but we also got to sing in it. 

Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi, Italy

Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi, Italy

For me, though, one of the absolute highlights was visiting the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi. This was before the earthquake of 1997 which did quite a bit of damage. As a choir, we were asked to sing at the Sunday mass in the Lower Basilica which, because it was the Feast of the Assumption, was celebrated by the Cardinal Archbishop. I got to intone the introduction to the Gloria and I will never forgot what a special thing that was for me.

The lower basilica

The lower basilica

The fact that we were singing in a building founded in 1228 by one of Francis of Assisi’s own followers, and that we were in distinguished company, and that we were singing sublime music (it was the four part mass by William Byrd) was enough to make this a memorable occasion but, for me, the pièce de résistance, if you will, was that I was making a pilgrimage to the epicenter of the world of St Francis of Assisi – a saint from whom I got – and still get – a huge amount of inspiration.

What is it about Francis that inspires not just me but so many people around the world? After all, he is perhaps one of the best-known and best-loved of saints? Well, let’s take a closer look at him.

Close your eyes, recall an image of St Francis, and it will almost certainly involve him in a pastoral, country scene being nice to animals; all meekness and mildness. This is the popular and sentimental view of Francis. And, to an extent, there is nothing wrong with that. But it can obscure some of the depth of Francis’ character. This is what the English theologian David Ford says about this:

“His love of nature is not…a sentimental love of God’s dumb animals, but rather an acute awareness of the interrelationship of all living creatures; and this ‘oneness’ is seen in our total dependency on our loving Creator. Thus, far from being a rather weak, ineffectual person (who to some might appear ‘soft’) his firm and unflinching trust proclaims that every human action is relevant to God and to God’s creation. This witness makes him one of the most powerful men who has ever lived; powerful, not in a materialistic sense but in the spiritual sense which has to do with the ‘inner life’ rather than with outward appearances.” (Introduction to Praying with St Francis, Triangle, London, 1987)

Outward appearances were actually something that, it may surprise you to learn, was rather interested in for at least the first part of his life. 

Giovanni Francesco di Bernadone (to give him his full name) was born into a wealthy and influential merchant’s family in around 1181 in Assisi. His father traded in luxury fabrics and was able to provide a very affluent and socially elite surrounding for his family. By all accounts, Francis loved all of this. He liked to party and it sounds like he was its life and soul. He was very popular and every bit the hedonist.  

And yet, even in the midst of the pleasure-seeking, there was an inkling that he wanted something more: something deeper, that money, clothes and partying couldn’t give him. 

We’re told that he was selling cloth and velvet in the marketplace one day on behalf of his father when a beggar came up to him, asking for help. When he finished the transaction he was working on, Francis abandoned his stall and ran after the beggar. Finding him, Francis gave the beggar everything he had in his pockets. His friends were quick to mock him for his act of charity, and he had to bear the brunt of his father’s rage when he got home, but it was the start of a journey for Francis that would witness his growing disillusionment with the passing and illusory pleasures of wealth and fame. A serious illness in 1204 also concentrated his mind on what life was really all about and he became increasingly more reflective.

Soon after this, he was alone in the partly ruined church of San Damiano in the countryside outside Assisi. Meditating in front of the crucifix hanging there, he heard God say to him "Francis, Francis, go and repair my house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins". Francis took this to mean the church in which he was praying, and went back to Assisi, grabbed a bunch of cloth from his father’s warehouse and sold it, giving the proceeds to the priest of San Damiano, in order to repair the building.

Francis’ father, as you might imagine, was not exactly impressed by this and there seems to have been a massive showdown, in which Francis completely renounced his father, his inheritance and, indeed, everything his father had bought for him. 

There is a scene in one of the numerous movies of the life of St Francis, this one called ‘Brother Son, Sister Moon’, which portrays this vividly, culminating in Francis divesting himself of everything from his former life, including all of his clothing. If you get to watch this film, do. It’s really good although, like every film by Franco Zefirelli, all the action happens …..REALLY….   REALLY….. S L O W L Y…….

St. Francis (Graham Faulkner) outside the ruins of San Damiano church in Franco Zeferelli's film, 'Brother Sun, Sister Moon' (1972)

St. Francis (Graham Faulkner) outside the ruins of San Damiano church in Franco Zeferelli's film, 'Brother Sun, Sister Moon' (1972)

Francis, as we know, went on to found the order of the fratres minores, the Minor Friars, or Lesser Brothers, because they were lay brothers, which we now know as Franciscans. Preaching a gospel of poverty and charity he gathered many followers and it is clear that by the time of his death in 1226, aged 44 he had inspired a generation of disciples. Indeed, the fact that the Pope declared him a saint in 1228, the same year as the Basilica in Assisi was begun to be built, shows what an impact this man of God had on the Church.

And what is his legacy to us, other than an inspiring life and a compelling story? As I mentioned earlier in that quote from David Ford, he had “an acute awareness of the interrelationship of all living creatures” and an “unflinching trust….that every human action is relevant to God and to God’s creation”. 

It is hard to think of a more relevant message than this for the world we live in today: a world where we so easily divorce our (seemingly small) actions from the powerful cumulative effect that they have on the people around us, and our environment. We might think of St Francis’ Canticle of Brother Son and Sister Moon as a tad whimsical but, to be frank, we could do with a bit more of this kind of insight if we are to restore this world to God’s dream for it.

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